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"

Wrestling with God

The following sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, October 16, 2016, the 21st Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 22/Proper 24).

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 Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

“And Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:

Our passage from Genesis this morning is one of my favorite episodes in the Old Testament, partly because it is so strange, and seems to come out of nowhere. (Maybe that says more about me than it does about Jacob, but still, it’s one of my favorites).

Jacob is returning home after fourteen years’ sojourn with his kinsman Laban. He has gotten married, twice, and amassed a large family and personal fortune. As he gets closer and closer to home, he gets more and more worried about his brother Esau. Remember Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright, and promptly ran away. This is his first return home since then, and naturally he’s worried about his reception. So he sends gifts to Esau ahead of the caravan, and then sends the family on ahead to spend the last night of the journey alone.  

Why does he send them on ahead? Is he cowardly, wanting to put as many bodies as possible between himself and his potentially murderous older brother? Is it somehow to protect them, with distance between himself and the people he cares about? We’re unsure, the text doesn’t say. At any rate, as soon as they’re gone and Jacob is settling down for the night, a stranger appears out of nowhere and attacks Jacob. They wrestle all night long, neither of them getting the upper hand, until morning — and as day is breaking, the stranger touches Jacob’s thigh and puts it out of joint so he can get away.

Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, and the stranger certainly plays it that way, giving Jacob a new name in the way that God seems prone to do now and then. “Your name shall now be Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” The dawn breaks, Jacob goes on his way, and finds his brother not murderous at all but overjoyed to see him again.

It is a strange episode. Is it a dream? Why did the stranger resort to these semi-miraculous means putting Jacob’s thigh out of joint in order to get away? If the stranger is indeed God himself, it certainly looks like God is prepared to cheat in order to win this wrestling match. As Genesis proceeds, we don’t really get any answers about this event. Jacob enters the Promised Land and follows in the steps of his forbears, becoming a great Patriarch, father to the twelve tribes of Israel; though he walks with a limp for the rest of his life.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever felt as though you were wrestling with God, or even that God seems to be cheating to get the better of you? At morning prayer over the last few weeks we’ve been reading through the book of Job. Now there is a man who has spent a long time wrestling with God: facing suffering he didn’t deserve, with friends whose easy answers tended to make things worse rather than better. Job doesn’t get any answers either, even worse for him since God himself shows up, unmistakably, and refuses point blank to answer the questions Job asks. Like Jacob, at the end he seems to come out better for having wrestled with God, but I have to think his life remained scarred for the losses and pains he endured.

Maybe you know what it feels like yourself: in the middle of life, politely minding your business, making your way as best you can, like Jacob maybe a shortcut here or there but on the whole trying hard to be conscious of God’s gifts, thankful for your blessings. And then out of nowhere, the stranger at the river Jabbok shows up and throws you off balance. You fight and you struggle, but it seems there is no way out. How is it fair? Loss, hardship, confusion, loss of confidence, all of it is difficult to endure. Is God responsible? Has God even cheated at the game, played dirty with fate or chance or Providence? Perhaps God even seems to you the unjust judge from Jesus’ parable today, and you or I like the widow, suffering some injustice and unable to get a fair ruling: coming day after day, night after night to God’s door begging for mercy and hearing only silence.

Albert Einstein, objecting to what he thought was the craziness of quantum physics, once remarked, “God does not play dice.” But all too often, our lives as we live them recall another quote, “Not only does God play dice, but the dice are loaded.” If God cheats with Jacob, if he refuses to answer Job’s cries, does that merely leave us to soldier on in the midst of whatever challenge we face? Are merely supposed to bear suffering like the ancient stoics, to bear loss of meaning or security by saying it must be God’s will and move on?

All of a sudden this strange story alone at night at the fords of the River Jabbok starts to sound more familiar, and all too common. What do we do when we are at our wits’ end, and the wrestling match takes a turn for the worse? What meaning are we supposed to make of it?

Consider for a moment that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we usually worry only about one side of the story, our own side. But I dare you, for just a moment, to consider the other side, God’s side of the story, the stranger stealing into Jacob’s camp at midnight.

Consider God’s own affair with the world from the first moments of creation: a world to love, and creatures to delight as they reflect his glory, persons made in his image, who are very good. But from our first disobedience in the Garden, the world fell from its first grace, and over the millennia God has been wrestling time after time to win us back to him, to redeem what was lost and restore it to glory.

Late in the match, long after Jacob and Job, He sent another stranger into the fray, his own Son, to wrestle the powers of sin and death which held the world in bondage. Not at night this time, but in broad daylight: as Jesus’ gave up his spirit on the cross, He cheats again, putting the whole world’s thigh out of joint.

The cross is where God puts the whole world’s thigh out of joint. And as he rises from the dead, and ascends into heaven, all who are touched by him receive a new name, his own Name. You and I are made members of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, where sin and sorrow and death are no more.

Certainly the hardships and struggles and sorrows of our lives scar us, and we bear those marks forever, just as Jacob limped his whole life long and the risen Christ bears the marks of the nails. Jacob, like Job, like you and me, asked himself “Why me? What does it all mean?” at the thought of the dangers he had gone through and the dangers ahead of him. It was a dark night for him at the fords of the Jabbok, and he did not know what the next day would bring; his preparations, sending his family on ahead, make him seem paralyzed with fear or dread. Would God be faithful to the promise he made to Jacob? Would his brother forgive him?  

But God did not answer his questions, did not allay his fears. He he did not answer Job’s charges either, and neither does answer ours — save by showing up himself. God does not answer our questions in any other way than by showing up himself: in our darkest, loneliest hour, grappling with whatever suspicion or anger or violence or doubt we might want to throw at him.

God himself shows up and picks a fight with us to bear, himself, all our rage, and cheating, at the last minute, bringing us up short, wounding us with his grace, so that we might be reconciled to one another and enter the land he has prepared for us with a new name, the one he has prepared for us from the beginning, a name befitting his sons and daughters.

If God has put your thigh out of joint, do not worry, he has put the whole world’s thigh out of joint at the cross of his Son. He did not cause your suffering, he is not hiding in the darkness, he is not afraid of your frustration. But his answer is to be with you in the midst of it, to suffer the brunt of it himself, and, as with Jacob, to grant you the grace to see his face right beside you, and to receive his blessing.

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

Sticks, Carrots, and the Cross

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on September 4, 2016, the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 16, Proper 18).

Collect: Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in thee with all our heart; seeing that, as thou dost alway resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so thou dost not forsake those who make their boast of thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

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

All sermons, in one way or another, are pieces of persuasive speech. And as such, each of them falls broadly into one of two categories: they are either a carrot, or a stick. Preachers have to be careful! Too many carrots and we can all grow complacent. Too many sticks, and it’s just so much abuse.

Today’s passage from the Gospel falls into this latter category: it is definitely a stick! Jesus says a number of hard things. First and worst, that we cannot be his disciples unless we first hate our fathers and mothers. And second, that we must each take up our crosses and follow him. He continues by reiterating the great cost of being his disciple, as a king goes to war and counts his troops compared to the opposing force; or as the builder of a tower counts his resources before beginning construction.

Like several other passages in the gospels, this is a sticking point, both for the disciples who heard it so long ago, and for us who hear it today. I confess I have neither the skill as a preacher nor the hutzpah to convince you that this stick is really a carrot after all. So what I will do is offer a few ways to think about this before we carry on with the Creed and the Great Thanksgiving.

“If anyone dos not hate his own family and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Is this really the same Jesus who said, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you?” Who said, “Love one another as I have loved you?” Aren’t we supposed to love our families first and best of all? Yes, yes, and yes. Then what is this about?

First of all, remember that for us today, the family is our fundamental emotional unit. It is usually our fundamental economic unit as well. But it Jesus’ day, not only was the family the fundamental economic unit, it was also the fundamental political unit. Jesus is making a point here about where we most fundamentally belong. And in Luke’s Gospel especially, that is the Kingdom of God before and above all else, before and above any other allegiance. The Kingdom of God is our true home. And while we may love our families in light of that kingdom, it is that kingdom and its Lord who has given them to us in the first place, not the other way around.

Jesus is also making a very practical point. While we may want to think of our families as the places of greatest emotional stability, personal security, and happiness, we know that this is not always the case. Or rather, that there is more to the story. Families are also the places where people most frequently experience abuse and the breakdown of relationships, which undermines trust and inhibits human flourishing.

There is an old Latin phrase, corruptio optimi pessima, which means “The corruption of the best is the worst.” Too many people know the pain of abandonment or betrayal within their families. Even in families which are otherwise the pictures of patience and support — perhaps even more in those cases — people are still capable of hurting one another in profound ways. Not always intentionally, but still it happens. We hurt more when the one who hurts us is one we love. In this context we can begin to see how it might make sense for Jesus to aim at a higher allegiance than our families; how it might make sense for him to point to a kingdom where whatever is lacking in our love for one another is finally perfected in the love of God, and every tear is wiped from every eye.

But what about the cost? More than anything else this Gospel passage is about the cost of following Jesus. A king counts his armies. Does he have enough troops to prevail against his enemy in war? Or would the cost be less to sue for peace before it comes to blows? A builder wants to build a tower. Is there enough money, enough organization, enough motivation to see it through to completion? In Chicago there is an enormous, abandoned hole in the ground, where a developer began construction on what would have been the new tallest building in The United States and one of the tallest in the world. But money ran out too soon and now it sits derelict on prime waterfront property, one of the most expensive ruins on the planet. The cost was too great.

What is the cost for you and me? What does Jesus ask of us in this Gospel? “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross. “We all have our crosses to bear,” or so we tell ourselves when life starts getting rough. But what about when life is good? What is the cross then? For some people the cross is obvious. A wayward son or daughter. Some great and terrible grief. A mental or spiritual ailment. Sins: the memory of past sins, or the anticipation of future sins.   

What is the cross you bear? For Christians in the Middle East today, the cross might actually be a cross, upon which they are murdered in the same way as our Lord. For many of the rest of us, I suspect, the cross is not always obvious. What if we are like the rich young ruler, who comes to Jesus and says he doesn’t have any particular sins, he has kept all the commandments from birth? What if our conscience is clear and we can point to no serious infraction? If you are one of these happy, probably deluded people, I suggest you broaden your vision. Whom have you not forgiven? For whom do you have no patience? Jesus went to the cross not for his own sins but for yours and mine, to work our forgiveness. The cross for you and me can be no less: even more than the cross of death to self, it is the cross of forgiveness and life. Whom do you have to forgive? To whom has it been given you to offer life? This is your cross, at least as much as any challenge or hardship or guilt you may bear, and probably more: to be an agent of forgiveness and life.

The cost of discipleship is always the cross. And the cross is always, every day, waiting for us to approach again, to make our choice to pick it up again, one more time. Every day we are called afresh to take up our cross and to follow Jesus. There is no other way. There is no shortcut, no buying or talking your way out of this. Spend some time in prayer, take an honest look at your life: your family, the projects you’re working on, the people you’re working with, all those who make demands of you. Where is your cross? It is there for you to bear, often where you least want to see it.

The Gospel lesson may be a stick, but there is also a carrot, which I’ve saved for last. If you or someone you know is in recovery, you may have heard the phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” At first it sounds like cheap advice, the kind of thing you’d find on an Internet meme or a greeting card. But it is both incredibly costly, and incredibly hopeful; it is the carrot for today’s stick. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

The cost of discipleship is always the cross, whether literally, as for Christian martyrs in Syria and Iraq, or figuratively, as for us in quieter places who nevertheless bear the responsibility to forgive, and to be agents of life in the world. The cost is the cross, and we must pay it every day as for the first time, afresh, anew. But just as recovery happens one day at a time, one moment at a time, with new life unfolding one painful step at a time, even so does our own procession with our cross. As we choose the cross of Christ yet again, in whatever temptation or difficulty we face, day by day, we find ourselves at the very brink of the kingdom of God. Pick up your cross, and see that kingdom stretching out before you in all its peaceful splendor, filled with the light of God’s glory, adorned with all the graces and populated with all the redeemed from every age. Every time we choose the cross we find ourselves on the brink of this kingdom, and our lives in the world reflect just a little bit more of its beauty.

It will cost us dearly, and before the end we will see ourselves poured out to death on our own crosses, in imitation of our Lord on his. And yet, like Moses on Mt. Nebo, today the promised land stretches out before us. We have only to choose it, again, today, to dwell there. Let us pay this cost gladly; let us take up our cross and follow Christ. So might we find this world, our families, and our lives, reflecting the glory of his kingdom: offered upon the cross, broken for our freedom, given to eternal love.

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

“Manners make the man” – or do they?

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on August 28, 2016, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 15/Proper 17).

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 God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Sirach 10:12-18, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

“Manners make the man,” or so they used to say. But manners have gotten a bad rap lately. They’ve fallen out of fashion in favor of “the honest truth” — by which we usually mean raw opinion, unfiltered by any kind of consideration or restraint. We don’t like manners because we don’t know if we can trust them. So often they are merely a pleasant veneer over an ugly core, or an elegant mask covering malicious intent. It is a truism of contemporary society that manners don’t matter: all things considered we’d rather have the unfiltered version, the director’s cut, uncensored. Maybe that will render us unfit for polite society, but then maybe polite society should just go fly a kite.

It’s a little bit troubling, then, that in today’s Gospel Jesus seems intent on teaching a lesson in manners. No matter your own personal rank or desert, when you are invited to a dinner party, take the lowest place. Yield to those who may be beneath you. Have some manners! If your host sees fit to raise you higher, then so be it. If they don’t, then don’t sweat it.

This has to be one of the most practical lessons Jesus ever taught. “You are the salt of the earth” can be hard to figure out; how do we do that? But “take the least honorable place at a dinner party” is pretty straightforward. And every one of us, at one moment or another, on a large scale or small, will have opportunity to practice this lesson.

“But there’s just one thing, Jesus,” we can hear the Pharisees saying. “What if we actually are the most honorable personage present at a particular gathering? Shouldn’t we by right take the place that belongs to us? Anything less would lower my own dignity; and even if I could surrender my own dignity, I must certainly look after the dignity of my office (whatever that might be.). No Jesus I’m sorry, I really ought to be the one sitting at your right hand at this dinner; I really ought to be the one honored here. And if I know I’m the most honorable present, then what good does it do to put myself in the lowest spot starting off? Doesn’t that call even more attention to myself when you inevitably ask me to sit up higher? No it really is best if I take the best spot to begin with, less trouble that way all around, really it is.”

The Pharisees in today’s Gospel seem to have taken a page out of our own 21st century book. They have no time for niceties, no time for manners. They insist on the honest truth, and getting on with the facts of social stratification as they know and live them. But Jesus insists, to them and to us, that there is another way, a better way.  

Manners: in this episode, Jesus sums up the whole project of manners in a word: yield the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous. Jesus teaches us this morning that manners mean yielding the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous.

Why? Why bother? Why does Jesus ask this of us? Doesn’t it mean, on occasion, that we will have to be less than truthful about how we’re actually feeling towards our neighbors or our fellow dinner guests? Yes, that’s exactly what it means. How does that square with the Gospel? Aren’t we always supposed to be truthful? At the very least, manners allow that our moral accountability rests in a higher law, a higher condition, a higher promise, than the sum total of our feelings at any given moment. Manners, together with its cousin Courtesy, assert that there is a higher world above this one, which it is our privilege to imitate on earth, and our chief hope finally one day to enter and dwell there.

A higher world: the kingdom of heaven — in which no one takes what is not first given freely, no one claims what is not first offered without cost, and the discipline of virtue does not limit our horizons but expands them continuously until we are brought face to face with the Sun of Righteousness himself, Jesus Christ, who surrendered all the trappings and deserving of divinity itself in order to seek and serve you and me. Manners belong to this higher world, and no matter how they might be abused or manipulated, their sheer existence bears witness to that heavenly kingdom.

What if we don’t feel like exercising virtue, or yielding right of way to those who might be clearly in the wrong? By behaving as if we did, we remind ourselves of this higher world, whose prince laid aside far more right, far more honor than we will ever earn no matter how high a place we reach. Furthermore, by behaving with manners, even in direct contradiction to our prevailing attitude or desire, we make small steps towards that world in which we will actually love and desire the Good above our own flawed self-interest.

I’ll never forget a sermon I heard in seminary, in which one of our crustiest and most lovable professors finally snapped a bit at our class. The year was dragging on and we were starting to feel tired, and maybe even a little bit sorry for ourselves about all the work we still had to do. He said, “I don’t care if you’re tired, I don’t care if you feel like it. I’ve heard one too many times that you all think you need “selfcare” more than you need to show up in church and pray. You don’t feel like it? So what? Fake it! Get on your damn knees, and fake it.”

It was a scolding, and a scolding we deserved, no doubt. But he made a very good, very Christian point: fake it! Your feelings are not the final arbiter of truth. In fact, they are the least reliable arbiter of truth out there. Faking it, in spite of our feelings, according the higher standard of the kingdom of God, is a lot more truthful than whatever unpleasant venom you might want to spit just now. Faking our way into the kingdom of heaven, is much more reliable than waiting for our feelings to change or for some kind of sudden, transformative religious experience.

When it comes to manners and our moral and ethical behavior, the same holds true. If you wait for your feelings to change before acting according to Christian conviction, you’ll be waiting a long time. Rather, start now, by giving way to those you think are lower than you, giving way to those you think are in the wrong. Take the lowest place yourself. The Son of God did no less, and quite a bit more, taking the form not even of a guest, though he was the host, but a servant. He did not take the form of vassal, though he was the King of all, but rather that of a criminal condemned to die. He did not claim his own righteousness or innocence before Pilate, Herod, the crowds, or anyone else, but suffered misunderstanding and death.  

His was an ignominious life, full of dishonor and injustice, which he could easily have avoided had he only spoken and acted according to his true status as the king of kings and lord of lords. And yet he didn’t. So great was Jesus’ courtesy, so genuine were his humble manners, that he suffered death rather than correct his accusers or prove his innocence. And what was the result? That the power of death is destroyed for ever; you and I are freed from the the bondage of sin; and we are made citizens of His kingdom forever.

No, manners really do make the man, even if they will never vindicate him before the world this side of death. Whether or not we feel particularly inclined, let us likewise exercise gentleness with one another, not claiming our due but giving it away at every occasion. Let us fake it if we have to, having confidence that our actions will speak louder than our feelings. So may we find that our feelings start following our wills rather than the other way around. So may we finally be fit for the place Jesus reserves for us at the table in his heavenly home.

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

Authority & Experience, Part I

This sermon was preached on August 21, 2016 at the Church of St. Michael & St. George (13th Sunday after Trinity, 14th after Pentecost, and “Proper 16”). It represents a few preliminary thoughts I have on an old question that seems perennially relevant: the tension between “official” religion and its local expression; or, reduced even further, between authority and experience. This is a starting point, nothing more, with a lot of work still to be done!

Collect: Grant, we beseech thee, merciful God, that thy Church, being gathered together in unity by thy Holy Spirit, may manifest thy power among all peoples, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 58:9-14, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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

One of the ways that archaeologists think about ancient religion is to mark a division: between official, institutional religion and the more common, everyday ways in which people live their lives of faith.  

One good example is the pyramids of Egypt and the tombs of the pharaohs, compared with the household shrines in individual people’s houses. The two are very different, both in scale and in style. The literature of the court is what has survived, and so when we think of Egyptian religion we think of the grand mythic cycles, monumental temples, and golden sarcophagi. But most people lived much simpler lives than that. They had small clay figurines in their homes representing their favorite gods, and perhaps also a few representing their ancestors. They made small sacrifices to them, and said their prayers as best they could manage. When trouble came, they may have gone to a temple to consult a highly educated priest, but they may also have gone to a wizened neighbor who specialized in folk remedies and who had known them their whole lives.

The official clergy weren’t always happy with this folk religion because it tended to water down the official message — usually some variation on the pharaoh himself being a god and the official state apparatus being the answer to all their problems. They did not approve of the kind of rough-hewn, messy, backlot religion that flourished in villages and neighborhoods all over Egypt, because it was so difficult to control, and because it was so unsophisticated.

Archaeologists see the difference between these two religions — the official, dogmatic line, and local folk variations, as being highly instructive for understanding all kinds of tensions present in ancient societies.

But archaeologists are not the only ones who notice this kind of division present in religions, nor are ancient societies the only ones who suffer them. Our Old Testament lesson today as well as the Gospel reveal that the same tension was present both in the ancient Israel of the Kings and Prophets, and in the Roman Judaea of Jesus’ day.

Isaiah and his fellow Israelites would have known two different kinds of prophets, roughly corresponding to the two sorts of religion. The first was a set of courtly advisers, well-educated scholars who made it their business to know all the goings-on both of the Temple and its priesthood, and the king and his court. They were the whisperers, masters of rumor and gossip, who delighted in dreams and visions and divine showings. (Something like a religious version of Lord Varys from Game of Thrones, if I can say so from the pulpit!)

Whenever a king wanted a word from God, these prophets were his first port of call. Many of them were very holy people, who served with faithfulness and distinction. One of the most famous was Nathan, who held King David accountable before God for his sins and trespasses, and who helped to crown his son Solomon king after he died. Ezekiel is another, and Ezra, both authors of their own books in our Bible.

Many others, though, were charlatans, plain and simple, who enjoyed their lives of ease and influence, disingenuously giving false advice and fabricating visions to suit what they thought the king and his people wanted to hear. Often it would happen that the king, in order to appease some new diplomatic partner, would install altars to their gods in the Temple of the Lord, and would worship them himself. More often than not, this set of prophets went along with it, and happily kept their jobs and their livings, usually with promotions to match the new wealth now coming into the country. These prophets were powerful people. Though most were not among the most righteous of Israelites, they were the spokespersons of the official religion.

The other group of prophets Isaiah would have known were people like himself. People a little on the edge, not as well-educated, who forged their reputations and their influence by their radical faithfulness to God, by speaking words which came true, and by performing miraculous signs which confirmed the truth of their message. These prophets were never very safe characters for the king or for the temple elite. They were full of criticism for the way things were, and often, from positions of loneliness and exile, they would cast a vision for a better way, a better world, in which the people turned back to God and lived according to his law, his promise, his generosity, rather than according to their own designs.

In today’s passage, Isaiah is a paragon of this type of prophet. More back-woods than polished, he represents the religion of the people rather than the official line, and calls the powers-that-be to account. Too long have they lived according to their own vision of success. Now he presents them with a better world, far above their own ability to scheme or devise, and locates that world not far off on some distant shore, but firmly within the realm of the people in their very midst whom they had so long ignored.  

Elijah is another famous example of this kind of prophet, with Amos and Jeremiah too. But not all of them are as altruistic as these. Plenty of these types of prophets were also charlatans, and led the people into ill-conceived rebellions and wars which devastated the countryside and decimated the population.

In the Gospel today, we see Jesus seemingly behaving as this second kind of prophet. He faces a scenario in which the local instrument of official religion, the synagogue, is so scrupulously enforcing its laws that a woman is criticized for presenting herself to be healed on the Sabbath. The officials have certainly read the law correctly, there can be no doubting their scholarship. In the Ten Commandments God does order the sabbath to be kept holy, and in dozens of further regulations both in Scripture and in other religious literature, complicated rules governed just how to do that. From the official point of view, the woman was clearly in the wrong. But just as Isaiah had done so many centuries before, Jesus takes her side against the institution.

It’s not that the official religion is wrong, but simply that it had lost the true object of its mission. What is that religion’s mission? Not to make people masters of its own ordinances and moral processes; certainly not to enrich or ingratiate the powerful who ran it; but rather to help people live into the vision of a kingdom where God rules and life is his supreme policy. So Jesus heals the woman, in direct contradiction to the official religion, and shames all their vaunted expertise by his mercy.

But before you start to think I’m advocating some kind of folk revolution in religion, let me make a further observation, from today’s Epistle. Archaeologists think of “Official” religion as being high and lofty, full of principle and abstraction, concerned with complicated matters of doctrine and eternity. “Folk” religion they think of as being low and gritty, concerned with the everyday worries of everyday people, and not very interested with philosophy or consistency. That distinction probably holds true very much of the time, all over the world and no doubt in Christianity too. Think of all the times you have heard about controversy between bishops and clergy, or clergy and lay people, or between mainline and charismatic churches. Today’s reading from Hebrews, however, inverts the whole dilemma: ‘you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, a mountain, darkness, a terrifying voice; but rather you have come to the city of the living God, to millions of angels, to the souls of the just now made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant and himself the final sacrifice.’ To Jesus! The author of Hebrews insists that this Jesus, whom we have just witnessed in the Gospel aacting as a hero of folk religion, breaking laws left and right in order to heal and restore; this Jesus, here in this passage from Hebrews and throughout the whole letter, is spoken of in transcendent language: the great high priest, and mediator of a new covenant. Here is official religion again, with a vengeance: high and lofty, higher than all the heavens. Here is Jesus, enthroned in eternity.

What to make of it all? What to make of Jesus, both folk hero and crown prince of heaven? Simply that, for us Christians, the criteria by which we adjudicate the tension between authority and experience; the standard according to which we discern between right and wrong; the bread and butter of our daily lives of faith as well as the great fulfillment of all our most poetic hopes; all of these things begin and end with one name, Jesus. Jesus meek and mild, Jesus in a manger; Jesus high and lifted up, judge both of the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. One and the same!

For us Christians, everything depends not on how well we master the metaphysical intricacies of our theology, nor on our cultural integrity as people of a certain type; but rather on Jesus himself, and his mission to free us from every bond, to make us citizens of his kingdom forever.

This is a new kind of religion, make no mistake about it! The altar to which we are about to come is both the altar of Jesus’ sacrifice, the place where the authorities executed him to eliminate the threat he posed, where he offered himself to his Father for our sakes; and it is also the table of his heavenly kingdom, where we share with saints and angels in the never-ending banquet of God. This altar is both the grittiest, most down-to-earth place we can imagine, as well as the throne from which the very stars are governed. The communion we are about to share, communion of his body and blood, is communion which brings together both kinds of religion and turns them on their head. Here heaven and earth come together: no longer mediated by impersonal ordinance, no longer constrained by local experience: but here we are visited by God himself and recognized for his very own.

Come to this altar and be forgiven of your sins.
Come to this table, and eat the bread of angels.
Meet Christ here and see him enthroned:
over all the starry host, 
and in your heart.

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

“Our Father…”

This sermon was preached on July 24, 2016, at the Church of St. Michael and St. George. I had just been with our mission team in Nicaragua over the past week — our 17th annual trip to the same place. The Gospel was the episode where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

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: Genesis 18:20-33, Colossians 1:21-29, Luke 11:1-13

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

Many of you know that I was away this past week, with our mission team in Nicaragua. They’re still there, they’ll be there for another week, but I was grateful for the chance to spend these few days with them, and to share with them the work that they’re doing. If you’ve never been on this mission trip, I strongly encourage you to consider going next year.  

It’s one of the most unusual mission trips I’ve ever participated in. First of all, our work is directly with the people who live there. Lots of mission teams seem to operate on an industrial model these days, where there are lots of intermediaries between the team participants and the people they serve. Not so with our team: we worked directly with a local organization that runs a school and a clinic. Unlike most mission teams, who stay off-site and get bused in, we stayed in the same neighborhood where we worked. We saw the same people every day, and our team has been seeing these same people for close to twenty years now. The number of happy reunions I witnessed was remarkable: residents of the neighborhood greeted members of our team as if they were old friends, and indeed they were. Because I was new to this mission trip, our people were constantly telling me stories as we carried out our work: stories about this or that building that wasn’t there ten years ago, or this or that family and their news, or a local church congregation with whom we had been worshiping, or various projects they had completed, or funny stories they had experienced.

Most mission teams go to a place, complete the tasks assigned, take lots of pictures, buy lots of souvenirs, and go home, where they start planning for somewhere different next year. Not ours. I have to say I was extremely impressed not merely by the accumulation of work we’ve accomplished over the last 18 years, but even more by the quality of the relationships we have built and the way the Nejapa neighborhood of Managua has become another home for St. Michael and St. George.

Why do I say all this to begin my sermon? First because you all ought to know just what a wonderful thing this is that we do every year at CSMSG, and how unusual in its quality. And second, because it’s a perfect analogy to begin talking about today’s readings. This morning we’ve heard a fairly systematic series of readings on prayer, and the various forms it takes. Abraham negotiates with God about the fate of Sodom & Gomorrah. The Pslamist reflects thankfully on receiving the help and mercy he had asked for. Jesus teaches his disciples the “Our Father,” and continues with his famous admonition to ask, seek, and knock, for the door to be opened. Paul highlights the importance of being focused on Christ himself, and not on law or status, as we are incorporated into His own life.

These lessons certainly seem to cover the bases: Abraham petitions God, and teaches us that we can approach God with our requests. The Psalmist gives thanks, and teaches us to do the same. Jesus teaches us that prayer is something like a relationship between father and son, parents and children. And Paul teaches us to reflect theologically on what it all means. Yet all this still seems insufficient really to say what prayer is all about. Because prayer is so much more than simply an outline of holiness, more than an index to Christian living.

As a priest sometimes people come to me who are dissatisfied with their prayer life. As we talk, it usually becomes clear that they are making one of a few different possible mistakes. One of the most common is that people feel they ought to pray for things that sound holy: things like peace on earth, or to have more patience with their families, or to get better at budgeting for charitable causes. These are all fine, and certainly worth aiming at. But prayer is not a divinely-sanctioned wishing well. And there’s no use asking God for something you think sounds holy if you haven’t done the work of preparing yourself to receive it. Because chances are, you won’t be able to recognize it when it comes. And so people get disappointed.

So what’s the answer? I remember once being scandalized by something my medieval theology professor said during the course of a lecture in seminary. (Imagine, being scandalized by the Middle Ages! But it might scandalize you too.). He said, “You should always pray for what you want, even if what you want is to steal your neighbor’s wife.” How does this make any sense? Because in prayer you are not placing orders with a cosmic I’m sorry to disappoint you! Rather you are lifting up your desires to God, you are offering yourself as a desiring person. Naming them in prayer surrenders those desires, and yourself, to God, to let him do with you what he will. If you want to steal your neighbor’s wife, God knows it already, naming it in prayer won’t surprise him in the least. It will not make it happen, God does not work that way. Be honest in prayer, even and especially about those things which we might want to hide or plaster over with a more holy veneer.

This is the starting point, hiding nothing from God. This is the only way we can begin to know the depths of his mercy, the only way we can begin to see another way forward, the only way we can begin to desire the higher things. On this model, prayer is less about getting what you ask for to change your world, and more about asking in the first place so that God might change you. On this model, prayer is less a religious means to my personal ends, and more the medium in which God draws me closer to himself, the occasions by which he clarifies his image in me.  

This is the kind of prayer to which all our lessons point this morning. In Genesis, Abraham’s prayer marks a transition point for him in his relationship with God. Before this, Abraham heard God’s call and obeyed, he offered sacrifice and made a covenant. But now God has visited his tent, they have haggled, and they have become friends. Jesus teaches the “Our Father” to his disciples, so that by their constant prayer, they might see they are no longer merely objects of grace, passive recipients of divine precept, but that they are God’s children now, whose life in the world will be radically different. Paul takes it a step even further, insisting that the whole thing is inescapably personal, as we abide in Christ himself, his body who is the Head.

Prayer is the place where we begin to see just what this means for the way we perceive the world and our own place in it. Prayer is the place where we begin to enjoy the communion of all God’s children one with another. Prayer is the place where we are changed more and more into the likeness of Christ, whose perfect act of prayer was to offer himself to his Father upon the cross.

So, what does all this have to do with our mission trip to Nicaragua? As with prayer, we might have started out thinking we were going to “help those in need,” or something similarly holy-sounding. But what I witnessed was a group of people who had been changed by the act of offering themselves in this way, who are there now, not because of any abstract desire to “help,” but because they have grown to love the people of Nejapa in a very real way: Norr, and Julio; Alex, Don Victor, and dozens of children, doctors, teachers, and laborers who work to make that place a home for so many.  

Put another way, the object of our team’s love has become their home, in a very beautiful way, over many years, and the people of Nejapa their extended family. May you and I find prayer to be the same for us: the place where we learn to love God with every fiber of our being, and find ourselves at home in him, with all those who also say, “Our Father.”

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

The Good Samaritan

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, July 10, 2016, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, “Proper 10.” It was another hard week: the Requiem for Bp. Salmon and funerals for the previous week’s deaths, news of police killings in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, and the sniper attack in Dallas which killed five police officers and wounded several more. Sunday seemed to me a moment when we might all pause somewhat to take stock of things, and reflect on what sort of truths we really hold about the world at core.

Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers thy people who call upon thee, and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

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

The Good Samaritan.  This parable seems especially appropriate for us after the last week: in which yet more terrible events have been in the news, and death and mortality have been on all of our minds.

I think we usually read the Good Samaritan as if we were the young lawyer, asking who is our neighbor, looking for encouragement about how to go out and love them according to the commandment of God.  Jesus’ lesson remains as true for us as it did for that young man, ‘You, go and do likewise: care alike for friend and stranger, no matter what road you find them lying on.’

And yet after a week like this, full of funerals, violence, and unexpected bad news, we might justly start to read the parable as if we were the traveler: not that any of us have been victims of the week’s crimes, but simply that, as things fall apart, we begin to feel the weight of sagging hopes, and very real grief.  In times like these it might be easier to read the parable through the eyes of the traveler: walking alone down the road, minding his own business, and suddenly ambushed as if from nowhere; now lying in the gutter, world upside-down, possessions gone, badly wounded.  What does the parable say to us in that position?

We might be tempted to revisit all our favorite conundrums. Conundrums like, ‘How can this happen to me?  I’m a good person, shouldn’t justice say I deserve a better shake?’ Or, if we’re more philosophical, we might start asking how a good God could allow this kind of suffering and pain in the first place.  ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’  It’s a convenient moment to reopen the old can of worms which philosophers and theologians call, “The Problem of Evil.”  I won’t revisit the argument, because you probably know it already.  Principally, it asks the question, ‘How can a good God and real evil coexist in the world?’

Sometimes I imagine the traveler lying there, considering his plight as so many people walk by.  I think his thoughts would likely be similar to ours:  no doubt he took stock of his relationships and his various projects.  Perhaps he said a prayer or two for mercy, for ‘things done and left undone.’  Perhaps he railed at God for a while, trying to make sense of what had happened.  Or perhaps he was simply too badly injured to think at all, and lay there in a stupor waiting for death.  Whatever the specific content that ran through his head, I have to think most of it was concerned at least tangentially with this Problem of Evil, which occupies so much of your and my mental energy as well.

Is this it?  Is the Problem of Evil really the great Achilles heel of the world’s religions, and especially of Christianity?  It certainly seems to be wreaking havoc everywhere these days.  And yet I cannot think it will have the last word.

It certainly doesn’t in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  As we know, the Samaritan comes walking along and sees this poor man, cares for him, takes him to an inn, and makes sure to pay the bill himself.  At another time in life we might be able to guess better what went through the Samaritan’s mind, but for now consider the traveler’s.  He had given up hope, he was beaten and naked, lying in a ditch and waiting for death.  Who knows how long he lay there?  But then, just as much out of nowhere as the robbers who beat him, this Samaritan comes along to help.  He didn’t have to stop, he could have kept going, passed him by, just like all the others.  Justice would not have been bothered at any rate.  But he did stop, and so the traveler’s life is saved.

I recently read a book review by Rowan Williams in which he reviewed three different new collections of fairy tales.  At the beginning he observes that one of the distinguishing features of the genre is a kind of two-sided coin.  On one side of the coin, fairy tales very often feature scenarios where the normal relationships which society depends on have broken down.  Hansel and Gretel are sent away into the forest because their parents cannot afford to feed them any longer.  Cinderella is destitute because the family who adopted her are cruel and jealous.  Camelot falls because of treachery in the court, and Arthur sustains a wound which no doctor can properly heal.  And yet, at the same time, on the other side of the coin, the normal relationships which undergird the fabric of society may be frayed or broken, but the whole created world seems to conspire to help the lonely protagonists.

Narnia is frozen over, but a family of Beavers help the Pevensey children, unlooked for and unasked.  Hansel and Gretel kill the witch, and the trees and the birds lead them back home, where their father is overjoyed at their return.  Sir Galahad, who features in two of our stained glass windows here at St. Michael & St. George (believe it or not!); Sir Galahad has no shield.  But at just the moment he needs one, he stumbles across a monastery in a forest no one had ever seen before, which possesses an ancient, wondrous shield, that the community is pleased to give him.  Harry Potter is trapped at Number 4, Privet Drive, and despite all of Uncle Vernon’s protestations, it seems the house itself conspires with Hagrid to make sure Harry gets his acceptance letter to Hogwarts.

The point of this whole catalogue is, as Rowan Williams points out, that if we’re going to talk about The Problem of Evil — especially if we’re going to claim it’s some sort of Achilles Heel of religion — then we also have to admit there is at least an equal, if not more troubling, Problem of Good.  If there is a Problem of Evil out there, then there is also a Problem of Good.

There doesn’t have to be good in the world.  The Samaritan didn’t have to stop and help.  Jesus didn’t have to heal all those people, he didn’t have to offer himself to death on a cross, or rise from the dead.  And yet he did.  Why is there any good at all in the world?  Nature could get along just fine according to brutal survival instinct.  And yet, time after time in our lives, we see that the world simply refuses to work this way, the world refuses to fulfill our expectations of an all-encompassing, dog-eat-dog brutality.

The Samaritan didn’t have to stop, but he did.  And from the perspective of the Traveler, that must have made an enormous difference.  No longer could he get away with mere self-pity.  No longer could he surrender meekly to the forces which threatened to undo him, as some kind of fatal inevitability.  The gears of cruel fate were stopped by an act of gratuitous, unnecessary generosity.  And for the Traveler, life had victory over death.

It is no different for each of us.  Every time we might be tempted to throw up our hands and surrender to the Problem of Evil, the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us to recognize the even more significant Problem of Good.  However dark the world gets, there are always sparks and flashes of unnecessary, gratuitous good.  These flashes stop the gears of fate, and allow new possibilities of life and growth, beyond injury and death.

These flashes are windows into the purposes and nature of God, whose act of creating the world in the first place was gratuitous and unnecessary; whose gift of his Son was equally unnecessary, unbound, and free.  The God we worship and the redemption he promises are not founded on any kind of Newtonian law of action and reaction.  They are not subject to any Problem of Evil, no matter how systemic.  Our God is generous and free, sneaking up on us when we least expect it, shining brightest when life’s clouds conspire to block out even the sun, always allowing the possibility for new life to spring out of darkness.

So what does that mean for the Samaritan’s Traveler?  What does that mean for us?  Obviously the Problem of Good did not prevent the Traveler from getting mugged in the first place.  When we walk a dangerous road we ought to expect danger, and prepare for it accordingly.  Only, when you find yourself lying in a ditch, battered and preparing for death, do not despair.  Do not think that God has disappeared, or that the Almighty’s power has been bound by the evil you suffer.  Likewise, do not think that he is the one who has afflicted you, that your suffering is punishment for some unknown sin.  Rather put your trust in his generosity, in the profligacy of his grace and the freedom of his mercy.  Look for the new life he offers, and be, yourself, its signpost for others.

Evil and pain will not have the last word.  All the parables and the fairy tales are correct in this, that even when every system is broken and all relationships of trust are betrayed, Goodness is not extinguished yet.  Creation itself conspires to bear witness to the final victory, as the very stones cried out in the earthquake when Christ hung dying on the cross.  As Our Lord rose from the tomb and opened the gates of Paradise, so far we too may follow him.  As on the cross he offered himself in a Great Thanksgiving to his Father, so in our own time of trial we too may offer thanks for the Problem of Good, by which we live, and according to which death itself is conquered and put to flight.

In the meantime, may we always be prepared to be surprised by this goodness of God, overflowing everywhere, bubbling up in gratuitous generosity, unlooked for and unasked, which nourishes and builds up the kingdom of heaven.  Let this constant surprise lead us into lives of continuous delight, giving thanks always and everywhere for the goodness of God.

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


This sermon was preached at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, on July 3, 2016: the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, “Proper 9.” It was my first Sunday back from vacation, and Independence Day was the next day. The previous week’s news included the ISIS attack in Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, the death of Bp. Edward Salmon, and several other deaths in the parish. It was a difficult week for many, especially here in our church community.

Collect: O God, who hast taught us to keep all thy commandments by loving thee and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

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

Home. It’s a powerful symbol for many of us.  It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and many of you are either going home or are welcoming family back home for the holiday.  I’ve just returned home from vacation, though it might be a little ironic that I left here in order to go home too, sort of: I was at a family reunion, something we do in my family once every ten years or so, where I saw lots of aunts and uncles and cousins in Colorado, a place I’ve often visited with my family.  The fact that this is an election year also has many of us thinking about the kind of home we want our country to be, and what hopes and fears we might carry about its future.  One way or another, home is something close to many of our minds at the moment.

And so it’s fitting that our readings today touch on home in many ways.  The prophet Isaiah reflects on Jerusalem as Israel’s home, even its mother.  St. Paul reflects on different domestic attitudes within the community of the church, how we ought to help one another, hold one another accountable, what criteria we ought to use to articulate our membership in this family in the first place.  And Jesus sends out the seventy to continue his work in the world, living as guests wherever they go, not counting their accomplishments as anything to stand on, but dwelling only in the mercy of God to have chosen them for their work.

What strikes me about each of these passages is that home — for Israel, for Paul, for Jesus, and for the disciples — home for all these people, the home they describe, is not there yet.  They do not yet experience it.  Isaiah writes to a people under threat of conquest and exile.  Paul writes to the Galatians that what matters for them is neither their beliefs nor their obedience, but their being made a new creation: begun in baptism, but not yet complete.  And Jesus tells his disciples, the things you might be tempted to rest in provide only a false confidence, a flimsy dwelling.  Rejoice only in your name being written in the book of life: a book that will not be opened until the end, when he returns to “judge both the quick and the dead.”

It may seem strange to hear Scripture refer to home — the one place at the beginning and end of every one of our earthly days — as something far off, yet to be established.  And yet to a degree, this is something whose effect we can all see in each of our lives.  “Home is where the heart is,” we say.  And we know the heart wanders where it will amid time and space.  Where is home when a beloved spouse dies, or a parent, or a child, as too often happens?  Where is home if we are under constant threat of danger, or when we live day by day with mental or physical ailments, which undermine our peace or security?  For that matter, where is home when things are good and everything is satisfactory?  I’ve lost count now of the number of people who have confided in me, that despite all the good things in their lives — a happy, healthy marriage, successful careers, confident, well-behaved children — that despite all these things, they are still lonely, their heart still longs for something more that it can never quite grasp.  Home may be where the heart is, but the heart is always at least a step or two beyond wherever it is we find ourselves at any given moment.  Isaiah knows this, and so does Paul, and so does Jesus.  They are all pointing beyond the present, trying to articulate for us to learn just what sort of home our heart is really pointing us towards.

And what sort of home is that?  For Isaiah, the home we seek goes well beyond any present sense of security or danger, and has more to do with the promises and purposes of God, to establish his people for ever, a people for his own, by whose prayer and praise the glory of God grows to encompass the whole earth, every living thing, and every stage of life and growth.  For Paul, the true home of faith is not a possession that any of us can acquire, no status or fortress we can fall back on.  Rather for Paul, the true home of faith is a posture, an attitude, starting first with receptiveness to God’s mercy: mercy for ourselves and for each other.  There is no pride in faith, no personal glory to be gained or exploited.  There is only glory in the cross of Christ, and his mercy to each one of us.  For Paul, home is not a place but a posture, of humility and gratitude for mercy; just as for Isaiah, home is not present security but a promise, the purposes of God to create life and infuse it with joy.

What about Jesus?  What sort of home does he suggest in his words to the seventy this morning?  The disciples obey his instructions, and they are astounded at the authority of his name, even to cast out demons.  And yet Jesus reminds them that even Satan himself once made his home in heaven.  Authority, residence in high places, great respect, is not enough of its own to make a home, not enough finally to belong somewhere.  Jesus tells these disciples not to let their enthusiasm or their pride get the better of them, not to let authority go to their heads.  He teaches them that their principle source of joy should rather be that the God in whose name they have done these things, that this God knows their names.  That he knows their names.  Great teaching, miracle working, casting out demons; none of these mighty works are shelters or foundations or homes, but rather simply that God knows their name.  God knows their name.

God knows your name too, and mine.  And this is the beginning of what it means for you and I finally to have a home in this world.  Isaiah teaches us to have confidence in the promises and purposes of God to create life and infuse it with joy.  Paul teaches us the posture of humility and gratitude as the way we respond to it.  And Jesus shows us that power and might do not avail for giving us peace or security at home, but only the confidence that God knows our name, and does not forget his kindness towards us.

So what about home?  How do we understand it in this world?  How do we build it, how do we give thanks for it, how do we protect it?  Our Scripture lessons this morning remind us that home is not something we can totally possess in this life.  If we seek it as a reward for good behavior, or the final end of all our work; if we want it to carry the freight of all our dearest emotions, or if we flee from it as the scene of trouble, we will always be disappointed.  Why?  Because for Christians, however we experience our homes in this world, they are finally not possessions or citadels in which we are safe from trouble or harm.  They are never as permanent as we’d like them to be, never as strong as we might need.  Rather they are the beginning of hope.

Our homes are what teach us to long for completion in the kingdom of God.  They are what give us glimpses of its perfection, its peace, always at the end of the long road which wends past the cross and through the grave, on its way up the mountain to the house of God.  That home takes root in this one, and by its own way it grows like Jack’s beanstalk up to the new Jerusalem, our “dear native land.”  So hope adorns our homes, making them shine with the light of that kingdom, growing now but not in flower yet.

And so, this weekend, as many of us go home or come home or celebrate home, let us thank God for our homes.  Let us live there in joyfulness.  And let us look forward in hope, all the more expectantly to our final, true, and lasting home, in the glory of God for ever.

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

“Catching” the Kingdom

A recent post of mine for The Living Church blog “Covenant.” It was written just at the end of May, as the “program” year here at CSMSG was winding down and our students and teachers at St. Michael’s School were preparing for the summer recesses. Full text is below:

From 1910-1931, Miles Farrow was the organist and choirmaster of the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  One of his signature accomplishments was developing the famous “Purple Tone,” which was the unique sound of his choir of men and boys. When asked how he taught the boys, many of them very young, how to achieve this sound, he would always reply that he did not teach them: the younger boys would simply “catch it” from the older boys, almost as they would catch a cold. The youngest choristers would sit with the choir and just listen, sometimes for a full year, before being allowed to sing. When they were finally allowed to add their voices to the choir, the “Purple Tone” would come naturally. They had indeed “caught” it.

Farrow’s practice wasn’t unique to him, there are plenty of choirs around the world that still ask their probationers to listen for a period of time before joining their voices with the others’.  But to “catch” something, rather than be taught, is a wonderful image. In that moment it is clear who is the student, but the teacher is hard to identify: certainly Farrow, but also each of the older choristers, and the gentlemen too. No doubt the organist bore much responsibility, as did the building with its acoustic and visual adornment, not to mention the liturgies themselves and the calendar of services. All are inseparable from the act of singing worship, and all worked together to produce the “Purple Tone” for which Farrow was famous and which the youngest choristers “caught” from the others. It was not merely a skill they were learning, but a whole spirit, a “germ,” which lodged in their imaginations and issued in this particularly beautiful way.

Extend the image further: for as many critics as praised this choir’s tone, how many more people must have been moved to pray by their music, how many visitors to the cathedral saw this choir singing and heard “the very stones crying out” in worship? How many vocations to ministry were nurtured by their daily offerings, how many evangelists strengthened, how many acts of justice encouraged by this community of prayer and praise? However these choristers “caught” the Purple Tone, there is always something deeply contagious about such an intentional, integrated, and public life of faith.

This is the time of year when many of our churches give thanks to God for their students and their teachers. This year so far has been a time in my own life when I have been especially mindful of my own teachers, whose student I have been.  Some have died, many are growing older, and I am increasingly grateful for the role they have played in my life.  Still, when asked what they taught me, I am always at something of a loss.  I have lost count of the facts I have learned from them, the skills honed at their guidance, and even the wisdom gleaned from their lives.  I find myself completely unable to condense their lessons into a pithy saying or a satisfying thesis. If “What have they taught you?” is an impossible question, then “What do they mean to you?” hits closer to the mark. But even this falls short.

We often presume that the relationship between teacher and student is chiefly one of exchange. The teacher has knowledge to impart, and the student receives it, digesting it according to their interest, need, and ability. Under this system, any teacher could stand in just as well for any other, provided the same command of the material. Wikipedia could just as easily stand in for any number of human beings, and we could all get on with more enticing concerns than learning.

But when I think of my own teachers, their lessons are neither the first thing I remember nor the chief thing I value.  Harry Potter and his friends value Hagrid as one of their favorite teachers at Hogwarts, even though his classes are far from ideal. Even so with my own teachers. At their best, they have not impressed me with the elegance of their presentation; rather they have introduced me to a new world I didn’t know existed before, even though it was always right under my nose.  They have fired my imagination with all the possibilities that world contains.  And by their patient guidance and friendship, they have made their world my own, by long sojourn inducting me into its mysteries, its challenges, its promises, and its joys.

Of course the world my teachers inhabit is this world, our plain old, one and only, planet Earth. But their teaching enables me to see farther, understand more deeply, act more maturely, and love more fully. I have been shaped their own peculiar character, and found myself in a company of fellow travelers who have scouted the way ahead.

It is hard to say exactly who taught Miles Farrow’s choristers the “Purple Tone” without accepting his own explanation that they simply “caught” it from each other. Likewise it is hard to say what I learned from my own teachers, apart from their being the touchstones by which I began to see the world afresh.  It is the same in each of our lives of faith.  Paul writes to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” (2 Timothy 1:6). John writes in his first epistle, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3). We “catch” our religion from one another, and, giving thanks for our teachers in the faith, we join them in their holy fellowship, the blessed company of all faithful people. In their steps we begin scouting the territory of the Kingdom of God, our prayers and praises inspiring the very stones to cry out in worship. Before long we find ourselves with students of our own, and so the Kingdom grows.

We live in an age where it is fashionable to be self-taught, self-made, self-fulfilled.  Meanwhile, teachers are not perfect. Miles Farrow finally suffered an alcohol-induced breakdown and died in an asylum. The fellowship of teachers and learners is a fragile one, requiring humility, sincerity, honesty, forbearance, and generosity, among other virtues. And yet to seek the kingdom of God by any other means amounts to the sin of Lucifer himself, who learned the hard way that heaven cannot be stormed by any amount of personal conviction, charisma, or force of arms. So, thanks be to God for all our teachers, and for all those from who we have caught glimpses of his kingdom. So let us, contagious with his praise and gentle with his love, guide others in the way that leads to eternal life.

Trinity Sunday at All Saints, Ashmont


I was honored to be invited to preach Trinity Sunday this year at the Parish of All Saints in the Ashmont neighborhood of Dorchester, just outside of Boston. This sermon was preached at the Solemn High Mass, at 10am. Music for the day included Stanford’s Communion Service in B-flat and F, and his Te Deum in B-flat Major.  Thank you to Fr. Michael Godderz and to the whole parish for your warm hospitality!

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of thy Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee that thou wouldest keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see thee in thy one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, Revelation 4:1-11, John 16:5-15

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

“Why don’t you quit waffling, and take a stand already?”  How many of us have said this before, or have heard it said to us?  Take a stand: be for us, or be against us, but at least take a stand!  As a culture we don’t have much patience for people who can’t make up their minds.  And nothing is more frustrating than having to work with people who lack the courage to back up their convictions with deed as well as word.  Take a stand!

The Church makes its share of stands too, and today we make what is perhaps the chief of all Christian stands: Trinity Sunday, when we affirm unequivocally that the God we worship is one God in three Persons, whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  All Christian prayer, all Christian doctrine, and all Christian hope depend in many ways on this stand most of all: God is one, and God is three, perfect Trinity in perfect Unity.

What is it like to make a stand for the Trinity?  What is it like to stand, and to build, on this great, monumental Doctrine?  The moment we try, a strange thing happens: we lose our balance, and end up facing a different direction than when we started!  What do I mean by that?  The moment we try to think of the Father, we are forced to consider his Son, his only Son, whom he loves above all else.  And the moment we turn to the Son, our eye is immediately turned to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit whom Jesus promised will lead us into all truth.  And the moment we consider the Holy Spirit, we are turned back to the Father, the one whose truth the Spirit reveals: which sends us right back to the Son.  To try and stand on the Trinity is like trying to step on a ride at the fair which is already moving: we get turned around from the moment we take our first step.  We can easily lose our balance, and if we’re not careful, or if we focus too long on any one point, we can catch a nasty case of vertigo and get thrown clean off.  If the Trinity is the firm ground where the Church makes its stand, then what are we to do when we discover it is continually moving around?

Take another example.  There comes a point in every person’s life when we hit “rock bottom.”  Maybe it has happened to you or to someone you know, or if it hasn’t yet, don’t worry, it will.  Maybe a cancer diagnosis.  Maybe you’ve failed an important test.  Maybe it’s getting fired, or getting caught, or declaring bankruptcy.  Maybe it’s a divorce, or maybe you’ve finally admitted to yourself that you’re an alcoholic.  One man in recovery once told me that, the moment he realized he had a problem was a moment in which suddenly found himself with an overpowering fear, fear that he was slowly killing himself, and that he was powerless to stop it.

Rock bottom.  Whatever it is for you, you know it when you’re there.  There is no lower that you can go.  “Rock bottom” sounds an awful lot like bedrock, like solid ground.  But the experience is always more like freefall, down an endless abyss into the void.  What do you do when you find yourself there?  How do you regain your balance?  How do you reorient yourself back towards life, and light?  It’s a very different scenario, but the question is the same as with the Trinity: how can you make a stand from a moving reference point?

Take another case.  Recently I met a woman who was totally in love.  The man in question was also totally in love with her.  He had proposed, but she was nervous about saying Yes.  She said, “Whenever I think about him, I think about how happy he makes me.  And whenever I think about my life, I think how glad I am that he’s in it.  I can’t imagine myself without him.”  “That doesn’t sound so bad,” I said.  She replied, “Yeah, but aren’t I supposed to be able to get along without him, if this is going to work?  As it is, I feel like I’m in a whole new world, and nothing is really recognizable anymore.  All my old hopes and goals suddenly look different with him, and I’m considering all sorts of new things that I never would have dreamed of before.”

I wanted to get to the bottom of this, so I arranged to meet with the man too.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised in any case, since he said almost the same thing that she did.  He said, “I want to be with her for the rest of my life, she’s always teaching me something new about myself.  And when she’s around, it’s like I am somebody I never knew I could be.  I don’t know why, but she loves me, and I like myself better because of it.  Life is richer somehow, there’s less pressure to be someone I’m not, and I feel like I’m discovering new things all the time.”

Of course they were both saying the same things.  Not that they had surrendered their identities to each other, but that, in love as they were, they found that something new and unknown was growing among them, leading them further into unknown territory, and they needed each other to figure out what that was and what it meant.  “All you need is love,” the Beatles sang.  But these two love birds prove that, like being at rock bottom, love is a difficult foundation too.  It’s hard to stand on love, because it’s constantly leading further on, opening onto new vistas, new possibilities, new depths of understanding and devotion.

So: It’s impossible to make a stand on love.  It’s impossible to make a stand at rock bottom.  And it’s impossible to nail down the Holy Trinity.  All of them move constantly out of focus, all of them are just beyond reach, all of them require some help from outside of ourselves to engage.  And yet, the Trinity is still where the Church takes its stand.  Our whole religion is bound up in this mystery.  What is this about?

The person at rock bottom, in freefall, has nowhere to stand, cannot climb out, cannot stop falling, cannot grab hold of anything.  And so, the Trinity does not present itself as merely some crutch to help us cope, some toehold for us to cling to.  Rather the Trinity reaches down to grab hold of us, never letting go, even in our darkest hour offering another vision, another possibility for life, cleansed from sin and free from death.

The couple in love find that love is not something they possess, but rather something that makes a new world for them, constantly unfolding with more delight, more challenge, more opportunity.  Likewise the Trinity is not something we can possess, but rather the very life of God himself, who claims us for his own, drawing us ever onward into his grace, feeding us with his own body and blood and infusing every day with more wonder, more joy, more gratitude.

Tracing a line from Father, to Son, to Holy Spirit, and back around again, can be dizzying, just like that ride at the fair.  If we try to master the contours of the doctrine, we will get thrown off.  Rather the point is, that the Holy Trinity is the constant invitation of God to be near him in all his saving and redeeming work.

Yes, the Church makes its stand on the Trinity, but not because it is the final and irreducible “this-far-and-no-further” of Christian doctrine or the culture wars or whatever.  The Church makes its stand on the Trinity because it is the starting point, and the source of all hope.  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, takes hold of us wherever we are, lifts us out of our ruts, washes us from our sin, and places us in a new country, bright and green, filled with his own eternal life.

Take a stand on the Holy Trinity: come and worship, and let God sweep you away to who knows where.  You may not recognize where you end up, but you will have taken the surest route to the Kingdom of God.

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

The Good Shepherd

This sermon was preached at 8am, 11:15am, and 5:30pm, on the Fourth Sunday of Eater, at St. Michael & St. George, 17 April, 2016. At 9:15am, Bp. Smith made his annual visitation to the parish, and confirmed a class of youth and adult confirmands. A few were also received into the Episcopal Church.

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of thy people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calleth us each by name, and follow where he doth lead; who, with the and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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

Election season seems to be drawing on towards fever pitch, and everywhere you turn there’s someone claiming that he or she will be the best candidate to lead this nation. In schools too, exam season is drawing near, and deadlines for college decisions loom. We try to prepare our young people to be leaders, leaders we ourselves might be willing to follow.

Likewise today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, and we reflect on just what kind of leader we have in Jesus Christ. Last week we heard him challenging us to follow him on the hard road which his resurrection opens. Today we hear him claiming the mantle of the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd. What does that mean? If we were raised on children’s stories from the English countryside, it might evoke for us visions of Little Bo Peep, rolling green hills, and gurgling streams: a pastoral landscape, vibrant and peaceful, where shepherding is easy and flocks can graze to their heart’s content. The shepherds Jesus would have known, however, didn’t have it so easy. Good pasture is hard to come by in the Middle East, and requires constant wandering, constant exposure to the elements, constant danger of coming into conflict over watering holes and routes of passage.

The shepherds Jesus knew did not have an easy lot. He is the good shepherd. But that does not mean an easy life for the sheep, rather it does mean that they can trust their Shepherd to lead them through thick and thin, to be near them in all their wanderings, and to defend them with his life if need be.

But Jesus the Good shepherd was not simply a shepherd to his disciples only. He is your shepherd too, and my shepherd. And, like sheep in Middle Eastern flocks, perhaps the chief thing that means for us is that we can allow our trust to rest in him. We can give him our trust, and let it grow under his leadership. He will honor it, and lead us in the way he has for us: not to harm us or to destroy, but to lead us into life, to lead us into joy.

Plenty of people claim to speak for Jesus the Good Shepherd, and there are plenty who claim his mantle. But do they lead his flock to life, or to death? Jesus always leads his flock further into life, snatches them even from the jaws of death, lays down his own life so that you and I might no longer fear even the power of death. He seeks us out even in the dark places where we find ourselves, He seeks us out even in crevices where we try to hide. Once we place our trust in the Good Shepherd, he himself will honor that trust, and lead us into life.

Where is he leading you? Where is he leading me? We may as well ask, where do we most need the power of his resurrection in our life? That is where he is leading you. Let him lead you there. Turn over to him your fears, your failures, your doubts. He is faithful, forgiving, and leads you into life.

But why should we trust him in the first place? We might object, “It’s all very well and good for some priest to say, ‘Trust the Good Shepherd and it will all turn out all right, but why should I bother? It’s just a bunch of religious talk.” Friends, this is where our Good Shepherd shines most brightly of all. Our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who leads us into life, and offers his own resurrection power to us in all those areas where we are most deathly, most afraid, most rotten; this Good Shepherd is a good shepherd chiefly because he became for us a good sheep. He became for us the very lamb of God: a lamb to seek out all the lost sheep, and offer himself to death even for your sins and for mine. He is a good shepherd because he is a good sheep, because he is himself the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

His innocence and his goodness may seem strange to us who are so well acquainted with our own struggles, our own temptations, our own sins. Even if we can accept that he is the lamb of God who died in our stead, it can be hard to accept that such an innocent Lamb can regard sinners with anything less than contempt. And yet his innocence is exactly what gives him the strength and the power to regard us kindly, with compassion, to draw us ever onward towards “green pastures” and “quiet waters.” His innocence is exactly what gives him that strength and power.

Yes, Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, who is even my shepherd, my own, and yours too. He is a good shepherd because he is also the Lamb of God, full of tender compassion for all who have gone astray. This Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is who sits upon the throne of heaven, appearing gloriously as the victorious lamb, who was slain and rose again, and reigns for ever. He forgives our sin, he leads us over all the rough places and dark valleys of our lives, leading ever kindly on, further into his own eternal life.

Won’t you trust him? Trust his voice — His voice, the voice of the one who died for you and rose again, whose designs are for your life and your joy, always to share in his own. Trust him, and see what he can do with your heart. It will not always be easy, but it will always lead further into his heart; His heart — which is your home and mine.

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