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"

Maundy Thursday 2018

Collect: Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:10-17, 31-35

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

Maundy Thursday. Today we continue the same dramatic reenactment we began on Sunday with palms and the triumphal entry. We continue our reenactment, but we also increase its intensity: in a few moments we will wash one another’s feet, in imitation of Jesus at the Last Supper the night before he died. Later we will take the Sacrament from the Chancel to the Altar of Repose, echoing Jesus’ own departure from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane. We will keep vigil there after the service in partial response to his request to Peter, James, and John, “Remain here and pray with me,” while he goes to his own Agonizing prayer. We will strip the church of adornment, and wash the altars clean at Jesus’ betrayal and arrest.

In our liturgy tonight, as on Palm Sunday, there is a difficult emotional transition: we begin with celebration, giving thanks for Jesus’ triple gift on this night: first his example of humility, leading his disciples by washing their feet. Second his new command that they love one another as he has loved them. And third by another new command, “Do this in remembrance of me,” introducing them to the gift of the Eucharist by which he remains with his church from age to age, nourishing us continually with his own body and blood. But then a spirit of trouble and even desolation descends on the liturgy, and we leave in silence to face the starkness of tomorrow’s death in a bare, evacuated church.

On Palm Sunday in my sermon I observed that all this drama is a way not of adding or creating what is missing, but of revealing what is already present. Today I want to reflect a little on how this liturgical remembering also accomplishes a reversal of our vision. If this kind of revealing adds clarity about the events at the core of our faith, it also increases the murkiness about how we view the world and the rest of our lives.

If you remember the story I told about King Nebuchadnezzar, the fiery furnace, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Nebuchadnezzar could see clearly that God was present with the three young men in the midst of the king’s attempt at execution; the episode certainly added clarity on that point. But if you’re Nebuchadnezzar, now what? What kind of world is it, where flames in a fiery furnace refuse to do their jobs, where angelic visitors side with prisoners against royalty? Without trying to elicit undue pity for the king of Babylon, it must have been a disorienting experience to say the least. Simply put, the world is not what he thought it was, and its mysterious powers not all under his thumb.

How many times has something similar happened to you? A surprise cancer diagnosis, or a compliment you weren’t looking for; a friend or cousin cuts you off, or a piece of particularly bad news brings you to your breaking point. Maybe it’s a pleasant surprise, or maybe it’s an unpleasant accumulation of small but lethal slights, or maybe it’s a death. Whatever the case, it disorients us. The world is not what we thought it was, and the news we’re given makes us rethink our assumptions and forces us into a new posture, a new manner of approach, a new way of seeing and thinking and imagining. When we’re in the middle of it, all we want to do is to come out on the other side intact. But on the other side, we see we’re anything but intact. We may have the same spirit, we may be made of the same physical stuff, but we can never go back; something is fundamentally different now.

Okay, so far so good. The question is, what reversal does Maundy Thursday accomplish? What disorientation does it initiate in us as we remember it liturgically, publicly, and inwardly? We call it Maundy Thursday from the Latin “Mandatum” for “Commandment” and we remember that tonight Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another. But that’s not the only commandment he gives. Jesus gives at least three commandments tonight. The first is the famous “Love one another” which concluded our Gospel passage tonight, symbolized by Jesus’ example of humbly washing their feet. The reversal here might be obvious, but it’s worth stating directly: whatever kind of authority we might associate with God, whatever kind of majesty or dominion, God exercises it not by edict, fiat, or imposition, but by washing feet, by serving the basic needs of creatures, granting them the dignity of God’s own attention and care. Any earthly authority that would claim God’s blessing or approval must do likewise, or be revealed a fraud. That goes for parents as much as it does for presidents, for priests as much as for police. If we wish to claim God’s approval on whatever leadership we exercise, we must do it wearing the servant’s towel. The further irony is that only one who serves in this way is free; any who would coerce or impose is a slave to violence and fear. This is a strange world that Maundy Thursday begins to reveal.

The other two commands come in the other Gospel accounts of tonight’s events, but no doubt they’re familiar ones. The second command Jesus issues tonight is, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And so we do, every week, nearly every day, and tonight especially. Scholar Dom Gregory Dix once wrote poetically, “Was ever any other command so obeyed?” The Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Mass, has come to define the contours of corporate Christian worship, and has done since the earliest days. But obedience to this command is more than a memorial. There is a reversal here too. We generally think of the bread and wine as symbols which convey a deeper meaning, a deeper presence. But the meaning, the Presence of Christ himself changes the nature of the symbols as well. So for those who partake of the Eucharist, all bread in every setting now points us to Jesus, the Eucharistic Lord, not only the bread consecrated here; all wine points us to his passion, not only this chalice. All eating, all drinking, all human fellowship is a sign of his once and future presence among us and the unity of all creation in him. In short, the symbols themselves become signposts of the kingdom of God, and the world we live in becomes suddenly planted thick with the seeds and occasions of forgiveness, faithfulness, and light, despite the darkness brooding everywhere.

Finally, the third command Jesus gives tonight is perhaps the most disorienting of all. He turns to Judas and says, “Go, do what you do quickly.” Judas gets up from the table and goes to betray Jesus to his death. Recently I heard someone observe, that throughout most of history, people were scandalized not by the resurrection — what else would you expect from the Son of God? — but by the crucifixion, by Jesus’ death in the first place. Death is not something we expect of a savior or a god, let alone betrayal by one who was so close. In our world today, the reverse is true: we expect Good Friday, we’re not surprised by injustice, it’s not shocking for trust to be broken or honor discarded for profit. It’s the resurrection that surprises us, the resurrection that we find difficult to defend or explain. However we react to it, Jesus’ command to Judas, “Go, do what you do quickly,” introduces another reversal: here is someone not afraid to face death head-on, who knows he goes to suffering and worse, who will agonize in the Garden over whether or not to go through with it; who yet, at almost the critical moment, encourages his betrayer to go, and get it over with already. It really is an intimate moment, quietly spoken; it’s unclear whether the rest of the disciples even hear what Jesus says to Judas. His tenderness towards his betrayer reveals the last great reversal of the evening: here is the same Jesus who will say to the thief on the cross tomorrow, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The stupendous gentleness of Jesus before all the forces of rack and ruin, destruction and dissolution: this gentleness of his person, a trait so often considered in this world as weak and easily taken advantage of, proves stronger and more enduring than death itself.

What does it mean for us? Find the gentlest person you know, and discover the invincible vanguard of heaven. Put aside the brash, the caustic, the pompous, and the self-promoting: they are nothing, a desert of ambition and vanity. Embrace the gentleness of Jesus and find an oasis of life.

In a few moments we will wash one another’s feet, share in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and before the end strip the altars and keep watch before we all depart in silence, while the shadow of death grows over the church and over our hearts. But as the drama continues, let the reversals which Jesus’ commands initiate, refocus our imaginations and recalibrate our expectations. The world we will discover is a strange one, bearing little resemblance to the powers that hold sway over the news, shareholder meetings, and geopolitics. But these days of remembering will help us put our feet on firmer ground and lift our heads above the fray, to see lasting joy springing from the mouth of despair, life emerging from the tomb, and love greeting betrayal with a kiss.

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

Palm Sunday, 2018

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018. (The Annunciation normally falls on March 25, but because of the weight of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Week, it will get pushed to Monday April 9. At St. Mark’s we will observe the Annunciation at Evensong on April 8, the second Sunday of Easter, though I know this bends the rules a little!) I have not announced a “theme” for my Holy Week sermons this year, but they are a continuation of the same ones begun earlier at St. Mark’s on worship and life with God. In hindsight, I might have titled these, “The moment that does not pass away,” borrowing an observation on the crucifixion by Br. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, in his book “A Monk’s Alphabet.” — the point is, the events of Holy Week and in particular the Triduum are the heart of Christian life and identity, the focal point around which everything else, including the cosmos, revolves. These sermons explore that conviction, and try to offer a few different points of entry.

Collect: Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the sample of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; 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 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:1-15:47

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

After the Passion Gospel a sermon needs hardly to be preached; you’ve already heard most of what there is to say! But all the same I’d like to spend a few moments sketching out the territory for the week ahead.

We began this morning with one of the most ancient collects in our prayer book: “Assist us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given us life and immortality.” The contemplation of those mighty acts. How do we accomplish this contemplation? In large part by dramatic reenactment.

We began this service out in the courtyard and sang the same Hosannas, waving the same palm branches as the crowds in the Gospel. We’ve just heard a dramatic retelling of the same episode. In my last parish we began out on the front lawn, even invited a local petting zoo to be a part of the day. The star visitor was a venerable donkey named Donatello, a fifteen year veteran of the festivities, who always proudly led the procession into church.

Over the course of this coming week we’ll undertake to wash one another’s feet, carry the Sacrament to the altar of repose, strip the altars, venerate the cross, and carry out a vigil as after a loved one’s death — all dramatic retellings of this series of events which is right at the heart of the church’s identity.

So, with God’s help, we enter the contemplation of these mighty acts. A big part of this is remembering what happened, and who were the players, and what were their motivations. We tell the story dramatically over the course of these days In part to jog our memories, and to give us the time we need to consider the scope of the drama and to offer us various points of entry into the unfolding narrative.

Remembering in this way, just like revisiting the story of the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving or Thomas Jefferson on July 4, helps to create a common set of reference points for who we are as a people, as a family of faith. It creates a baseline of shared memory: none of us were there ourselves all those years ago, and yet we are the common heirs of the memories all the same. Sharing them with one another creates and sustains the succession of generations for whom this holy week is their own inheritance, their own treasure.

It’s a remembrance, but it’s more than a remembrance. This past Wednesday, at the regular 12:10 service, the appointed first reading was from Daniel — that episode where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego get thrown into the fire for not worshiping the king’s golden image. You know the story: instead of burning up, they walk around in the flames together, saying prayers and singing hymns. Meanwhile, as they walk around, King Nebuchadnezzar is watching to make sure they burn up like they’re supposed to — but he notices it’s taking longer than usual, and also he notices a fourth person in the flames with them, who wasn’t there when they got thrown in: he looks like a son of God. The king is so confused he lets them all out, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are all unscathed — but no trace of the fourth person. The implication is, that, as the three of them said their prayers and sang their hymns, God himself appeared beside them.

We tell ourselves the same thing as a way of encouraging us to pray, and to come to church: especially this week! — when we remember together as a group the events of Jesus’ passion and death. As we pray together and sing, God appears among us, affirming our faith and leading us to the other side of whatever challenge we might be facing. Jesus promises that wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, there he is in the midst of them.

But it’s important to remember, praying is not a way of coercing God to show up. In the fiery furnace, the angelic visitor did not show up because he was impressed by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faith, or by their discipline, or their conviction. And for that matter on the cross: God does not decide to forgive our sins just because Jesus says, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.” No, the thing about prayer, and the thing about remembering in the context of prayer, is that it does not coerce God into doing something that wouldn’t otherwise happen; rather, prayer reveals what is already true, shows what is already present, and enables us to recognize what was there all along but we couldn’t see or notice.

In the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar could finally see for himself that God was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego no matter how badly the king might try to isolate and shift their loyalties to himself alone. When a priest anoints the sick and prays for healing, it’s not magic for manipulating germs or enchanting the body’s powers of recovery. It’s merely to reveal that God the source of life is present even in the midst of illness, suffering, and death; and that the sight, the glimpse, the touch of God which anointing reveals allows for a more profound healing than any miraculous cure or magical incantation. On the cross when Jesus prays, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” he reveals to everyone present and to all of us that God’s mercy runs far deeper than any sin, violence, mockery, or injustice, and we can only be silent in awe before the mystery.

So it is with Holy Week, and with all our liturgical remembering — and for that matter with all our prayer in whatever context we offer it. We do not create what was not present already; we do not coerce the nearer presence of some reluctant or faraway deity. We merely open a window on what was there all along, and which will continue through endless ages, closer than the closest friend or brother, or even thought or feeling.

The events of Holy Week, its characters, and chief of all its God do not pass away. In remembering them together, we open a window onto a deeper reality than we can see most of the time.

In Holy Week, we see again as if for the first time a God whose chief characteristic is generosity, free and open and continuous to the world he has made, full of mercy and loving-kindness. We see a world gathered together around a death, uneasy with the wickedness that has been done, implicated in more ways than one, but powerless to stop it from carrying on. We see a Savior betrayed, but who in betrayal forges a way through death: that what was once an ending, the only ending, ending every story ever told, is now the continuation of my story and of every story in the further reaches of divine Love.

In Holy Week we see everything orchestrated together into a music which all creation sings. As we reenact, and remember, and pray, and sing together, we take up our parts and join the harmony of the whole. This year may God grant us a special glimpse of this music in which the whole world is caught up, along with life and death and all time. As we retrace the final steps of Jesus’ earthly life, may we see all the more clearly that pattern, that rhythm, to which the whole world moves. Seeing more clearly, may we love more truly; and loving more truly, may our joy overflow.

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

Good Friday 2018

Collect: Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

As many of you know, or may have discovered thanks to the suddenly eased traffic, this week is spring break at Cal. It’s the first time since I’ve come to St. Mark’s that class has not been in session, and I’m struck by the very noticeable quiet of it all. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a university community during spring break, but for some reason I’m particularly struck by it this year. It’s certainly not silent: buses continue their routes, HVAC units continue their hum, the construction project up the street carries on, and planes fly overhead like they always do. But the human bustle is much reduced: I notice far fewer random bits of conversation and general hilarity rising above the fray, while the groups of pedestrians walking past my office are gone, leaving only solitary, somewhat harried graduate students. The coffee shops are empty, and for the first time, I don’t have to wait in line when it comes time for lunch. It’s not an easy kind of silence, like summer break, but the gathering of a breath, a waiting kind of silence, for the press and stress of the last weeks of the year suddenly to descend.

For whatever reason, this silence has impressed itself on me this week, and has put me in mind of Good Friday all week long. There on the cross as Jesus hangs from noon until three, a darkness covers the whole land. The sun goes out, I imagine the birds have stopped singing, and the onlookers, frightened out of their mocking, have gone home. They leave only a dry hill with three dying men. The wind blows in the grass, and all creation waits for the last breath.

I post the texts of my sermons to a WordPress blog, which I’ve named, “Between Noon and Three.” The title is a phrase I’ve borrowed from W.H. Auden, who uses it repeatedly in a number of the poems in his series on the Divine Hours, the traditional offices of prayer throughout the day. Today here we are, literally “between noon and three” as we meditate on the last hours of Jesus’ earthly life, the period of time he hung upon the cross.

One of the things I like about Auden’s poem cycle is that every one of them seems to take place on Good Friday: it is a day that does not pass away, that remains forever. But despite the way the crucifixion pervades the poems as well as the poet’s consciousness, the narrator never quite manages to figure out what to make of it. To Auden, Jesus’ death is the sort of thing that seems inevitable and long-planned, as if the whole arc of human history has been leading up to the murder of God; and at the same time it seems the sort of thing that comes upon us from who knows where. Suddenly the deed is done and we’re left struggling to figure out just what it is that’s happened, let alone what it means.

Auden describes, near the end of the cycle, his dream that one day he might finally discover “Just what happened today between noon and three.” The Church locates the salvation of the world in these three hours, although it has never explicitly defined how, or satisfactorily explained why. Why this solution, of all solutions? To answer, we have to take stock of the silence which prevails from noon until three, silence that defies easy explanation or understanding, silence that seems eternal and yet stings as a sudden wound.

Like the silence here in Berkeley these last few days, but in a much more profound way, this silence at the cross is not an absence or a void, but a watchfulness, a waiting, a regard even, where God and creation are intensely aware of one another. Our collect for today reflects the same stillness, the same awareness: “Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross.” We pray God simply to behold us; for God only to just look at us. It’s as much as we can muster on Good Friday. And the silence of the Cross is the surest sign we can point to that God is answering our prayer. “Just look at us,” we pray. And on the cross God does.

There is a dialogue here in the silence, a kind of speech that’s exchanged within this mutual regard, this mutual beholding. Dare we say that there is love here, somewhere, in the sight of God and in our own sight, as we behold one another? That, at any rate, is the conviction of the Church: that somehow, mysteriously, as Jesus is exposed to all the world and death itself; as we stand exposed to God for all our beauty, all our shabbiness, and all our sin, we are reconciled to one another. The silence enables us to know one another more profoundly than before: God is known to humanity in infinite compassion; and humanity is lifted up into the nearer presence of God.

It’s not really so hard to believe. Years ago, in one of my adult confirmation classes, there was a mother who had a son in college. His school was in the same town, and he would come home frequently, for laundry and all the rest. But she was missing him, and lamenting the fact that they didn’t talk much anymore. What would become of their relationship? She felt he was slipping away and that she was, too; that they were fast becoming strangers to one another. This caused her a lot of grief and worry.

One day she appeared in tears, having just received a diagnosis of breast cancer. But it wasn’t the cancer that had caused her tears. She had managed to corner her son because she wanted to share the news; she was afraid how he’d react, but instead he just looked at her: really looked, and she felt as if he’d actually seen her for the first time in a long time. He didn’t say much except “I love you, Mom.” But that look was all she needed. Her tears were from bittersweet happiness, from learning afresh that she really was seen and known and cared for, despite a terrifying diagnosis. She didn’t worry after that: about her health certainly, but not about her son.

This kind of love is what the silence of Good Friday enables. This is what we assemble together here today to remember, to encounter, and to venerate: to see, and hear, and say, and touch, what we cannot understand or communicate by words alone. We are here today to pray God “To just look at us,” and in the looking, to be known and reconciled and loved.

This is why Good Friday and the moment of Christ’s death is a moment that does not pass away but remains forever. The silence of mutual beholding, between God and creation, is the still point in a turning world, the seed of hope and an everlasting comfort. It is the moment where love reigns supreme despite all the forces of death arrayed against it.

Whenever we are tempted to think all is lost, or to throw up our hands in the face of chaos, or to despair at so much wickedness in the world and in our hearts: the cross is there, its silence is there, speaking loudly and clearly of God’s gracious beholding, calling us to new life in a Love that does not pass away.

What good does it do me?

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 18, 2018.

Collect: O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

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

Recently l was talking with a parishioner, and the subject of prayer came up. “I learn the words,” he said, “But part of me also wonders, what good is this really supposed to do me?” I confess I sputtered a bit, because I normally operate from the presumption that prayer is an objective good in itself, valuable despite whatever benefit we might or might not derive from it. It doesn’t usually occur to me to ask “What good does it do me?”

I’m sure I answered with something unsatisfactory, and the conversation moved on. But I’ve been thinking ever since. Even if it is an objective good, apart from any personal benefit, there should be something to say about the good it does. One good place to start is the passage from Jeremiah this morning. “I will write my law on their hearts and on their mouths; and they shall not need to teach one another, saying, ‘Know the Lord, for they will all know me.’”

There is something about the repetition of words and phrases, which begins to sink into the mind and heart. It’s easier to feel loved when a loved one says “I love you,” on a regular, repeated basis. And when the going gets tough, those repeated affirmations become an internal backstop, a confidence which underlies whatever surface struggles or tensions we might face.

So it is with prayer. Words repeated over time enter the mind and heart and begin to undergird our daily reality with the promise and presence of God. When the going gets tough, and often when we least expect it, whatever prayers have sunk into our hearts resurface and work as guiding lights in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.

It reminds me of a story a father once told me about the first night his infant son was in the hospital. It was a sudden and unexpected emergency, and that first night, helpless, the father turned to prayer after a long time away from praying. He said he felt utterly stranded, he couldn’t think of a single word to say, or any way to start praying — just that he wanted to, and was devastated he couldn’t. But in that moment as he knelt in agony, without even words to offer, a childhood prayer came back to him which he remembered somehow from Sunday School. It was all he could offer, and yet in that moment it was enough; and as he said the words, a calm came over him that he never thought possible. From that moment on, he was convinced he had met God, and in a very powerful way he had.

We pray so that the words of our prayer might sink into our hearts and minds, and become second nature, a second language. But it doesn’t stop there. So often in life the things we adopt as second nature — the activities and hobbies where we spend our leisure — all become more than second nature. They come to shape our imaginations and define who we are. That’s clearest in a sacramental framework where a person ordained a priest really becomes a priest; or where married persons become something more together than the sum of their parts. But it’s also true in a smaller way in everyday habits and patterns. We introduce ourselves by our professions, our hobbies, our loyalties, our relationships. “I’m a teacher,” one person says, or think of all the cartoons and memes featuring some variation on, “Work at the firm pays the bills, but my life is fishing.” — or golf, or music, or whatever. We define ourselves by the second natures we adopt; and in doing so the second nature shapes and directs our primary nature.

Our whole lives long we are still becoming what we will grow up to be. For prayer to come as second nature to us is for it to shape our imagination, our powers of perception, until our primary nature is marked by openness to the presence and power of God. A life of prayer is a life of becoming more and more aware of the movement and mystery of God’s grace within and beyond whatever happiness or anxiety we face in any given moment. In this way, the words of our prayer and the choice to offer it become less like going to a river to sip water — it does nourish us and it does strengthen us — but more than that, it’s like getting in a boat and sailing downstream and out to sea. We move through the landscape from a completely different perspective, carried by the river at least as much as we navigate it ourselves, until it finally opens up onto a limitless horizon, and we look back at the land, our home, from the sea and see just how good and precious it is.

“In that day no one needs to teach one another saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” As God’s words enter our hearts, our hearts enter God’s. Far from a small enclosure, there is room there for the whole creation and all worlds that ever were or might ever be.

Which brings me to the last piece of good that prayer does for us: and that is, that it puts us in touch with God himself at work within us, just as he is at work in all life. Prayer is something that happens in us, something that God accomplishes within us, at least as much as it is something we say or offer ourselves. When we pray, “Our Father,” as Jesus taught us, we offer the same words Jesus himself offered to God, we step into his own prayer, into his Spirit, who prays his prayer within us. When we pray, we open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit who gives us life, who is the ground of who we are and who we are meant to be. In short we are put in touch with the core of our inmost nature: made in the image of God, yet still unfolding in every moment of our lives.

In this way we can understand a little better then what Jesus means in today’s Gospel when he reiterates the same thing he said to Nicodemus last week: “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He makes from the cross his own final prayer, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.” — His final prayer, which is the heart of all prayer: the Son of God offering himself to God the Father, opening himself continually to the movement of the Holy Spirit, even in the face of death itself. There is a magnetism here which the whole creation is bound up in, everything that is created by God and depends on God for life; and when death itself is drawn into prayer in this way, whatever power it had to sever and break is ended. When we pray we are brought back to this moment, this eternal offering of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit, this unity of all creation in love.

What good does it do us? It may not be measurable by clinical or financial standards. But it does put us in touch with the whole reason and mystery and majesty of life. And the more we open ourselves to this mystery, the more wonder-filled and delighted we will be as persons; the more capable of weathering the storms and difficulties that inevitably come; the more bound up in one another our lives will become, and the more we will recognize ourselves as creatures of love whose lives are hid with Christ in God.

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

Seen and unseen, said and unsaid

The following is more of a meditation than a sermon — occasioned in part by Jesus’ connection of the cross with Moses’ serpent of bronze in today’s Gospel, and in part by some of the responses to last week’s sermon — variously jubilant or concerned that I had downplayed the doctrine of the Atonement. My intention was not to downplay the doctrine, only to shift focus from the mechanisms of forgiveness to the God who forgives. The meditation below is an elaboration on that shift in focus, as well as a continuation of previous themes on worship in general. It was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Refreshment Sunday, 11 March 2018 at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. The choir sang a setting of the mass by Arvo Pärt. The photo is of the rood screen and chancel at Christ Church, New Haven, CT, by Lauren Larsen Photographs.

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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

One of my favorite churches is in New Haven, Connecticut, the parish where I served as a seminarian years ago. They have an old-fashioned rood screen like ours, an open, carved wood lattice placed at the juncture between the nave and the chancel. A great, almost life-sized cross stands at the summit, and all the carved work makes the screen feel like a sheer, breezy curtain into some Moorish walled garden in some desert palace long ago. It marks a transition from one place to another, one attitude to another, one world to another, as communicants pass beneath the cross on their way to the altar to make their communions with the One who hangs there.

As you walk under the cross, your eyes shift to the altar, and to the communion rail ahead. But behind you, up on the beam that supports the cross, there are words carved into the wood — facing backwards, facing back towards the altar. It’s a quote from John’s Gospel, a later repetition of one of the verses we heard just now: carved in the old King James,’ “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

It’s an architectural way of making a very complicated and very beautiful theological point, plain for all to see on any given Sunday at the administration of communion. It’s also a reminder to the clergy, who is really the MC, the conductor of the Liturgy: Christ himself, more than any one or group of his ministers. It is his action, his love that orchestrates the whole celebration, his grace that calls us to the altar and that binds us to one another in these holy mysteries.

But as Jesus makes clear with Nicodemus in the Gospel today, the cross is also a direct reference back towards the episode in Numbers which we also heard today: the people of Israel have made their Exodus from Egypt, and they have wandered in the wilderness for years now. They’ve had a bit of bad diplomacy with the people of Edom, who did not permit them to cross their country on the way to the Promised Land, and so now they’re taking the long way around. They grumble, against Moses and against God, and they complain about the manna, the food from heaven which they’ve receiving miraculously every morning for nearly forty years now. God seems to be a bit bad tempered as well, because he responds to their grumbling by sending fiery serpents to bite and afflict the whole ungrateful bunch. God tells Moses to craft a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole — so that anyone suffering from snakebite can come to it and look at it and be healed.

It’s a weird story, no question about it, especially since the Ten Commandments are fairly explicit about making no images. The brazen serpent appears again in the book of Kings. Apparently the people had kept it and treasured it long after they had entered the Promised Land. It held a special place in the temple, and they would burn incense before it. King Hezekiah, one of the last great kings before the exile, undertook various religious reforms and finally destroyed the brazen serpent, fearing it had led the people to idolatry at last.

In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus it’s fairly clear that he’s referring to the healing properties of the snake: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” There’s something refreshing about the connection, at least to my mind. All that the people of Israel had to do was look at the serpent and they would be healed. No elaborate public displays of penitence, no sacrifice required; not even an apology or an admission of guilt. Just look at the serpent and be healed. Somehow the action itself was enough, the action itself contained all that might have been said and more.

There is certainly dramatic irony in play, and a painful one at that — having to look at the image of the thing that caused injury in order to be healed. But such a task also reminds them that the snakes were not the primary cause of their unhappiness, rather their own all consuming regard for themselves and their appetites, much as in the Garden of Eden, the serpent was only the vehicle of temptation and not the agent of the fall. Looking up at the bronze snake to be healed, away from the ground and away from their navels, in a sense points out their narcissism and restores a proper sense of perspective. Likewise for us to behold Jesus on the cross is to be reminded that his lordship is as victim, not as tyrant, and if there is anything wrong with this picture it is with ourselves who are so slow to recognize the victimizing power of our own misdeeds. But all this and all the inexhaustible more that might be said about the cross and about what happens there and about what good it does us, is contained and communicated in the simple act of looking up at it. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Just as the people of Israel were healed by looking at the serpent, so are you and I, by beholding the cross.

It’s an architectural way of making a very complicated and very beautiful theological point, which mingles the sign with the signified and liberates final religious meaning from priests and scholars and poets and restores it to anyone with a beating heart, who with humility and love yearns to be forgiven, to be healed, to be free.

Just look up, behold the cross, from whatever vantage point you possess, whatever you are feeling and wherever you find yourself. And in that action, behold the axis mundi, the central hinge of the whole world, both healing and mystifying us, in relation to which our lives make sense as being drawn to the very brink of heaven — but which loses all meaning the minute we make it serve our own ends; and more, in that moment it stands in judgment against us, for it was just such a self-seeking appropriation that led Jesus to be condemned in the first place.

The difficult thing about architectural points is that they are made silently, without words to interpret. Buildings are their own interpretation, speaking themselves to us as whatever life they are built to enable is lived out within them. So it is with the Church, the Sacraments, the Bible, Prayer, Doctrine, and the Cross. They exist not to be explained or defended or appropriated, but to enable a life in touch with God. Let them touch you, let them populate the landscape of your imagination. Look up from wherever you are to behold these mysteries on the horizon, and find God close at hand to help and to save.

This morning as we come to the foot of the cross above our own rood screen, and at the altar make our communions, may we find ourselves refreshed by the simplicity of our task, beholding the source of our healing and transported across time and space to the antechambers of Paradise: to that walled but un-gated garden where the serpent finally is crushed and death is no more, and the dead wood of the cross bears fruit for the healing of the nations.

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

Faith and Folly

This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday of Lent, 4 March 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. In some ways it’s a reprise of themes from before Ash Wednesday, on worship as the exercise of love, but with a Lenten twist focusing on the love of God revealed in the cross.

Collect: Almighty God, who sees that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended form all adversities which may happen to the body, and all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17,1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

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

Do you ever wonder how Jesus himself would have processed some of the things he did? Like did he ever regret being so short with Simon Peter, when he said, “Get thee behind me Satan”? Later on did he think, “Huh, maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so hard on him”? Or in our Gospel reading today, clearly he’s very angry with the money changers in the temple, and I wouldn’t dare suggest that he wasn’t right to do what he did, driving them out. But I wonder how Jesus himself thought about it in the next few days. Did he think, “Hmm, maybe that was over the top, I’ll be a little less intense next time.” Or was he happy for it to have been such a public moment?

I confess I’m not much given to those kind of public losses of control very much, but sometimes it happens, and almost always regret it later. I don’t want to project myself too much on Jesus, but I have to think he at least wondered how his words and actions were affecting other people.

The thing is, we don’t actually know. All we know is how the disciples remembered what they saw and heard. And they saw and heard some pretty amazing things, including some pretty crazy and off-putting things, things which I at least, and probably a lot of you too, would regret having done pretty immediately afterwards.

Does it limit or otherwise sabotage shat we think of Jesus if all we have is the record of how he was received by others? — if it’s most colorful points are moments when he let his emotions or even his own foolishness get the better of him?

Maybe, but then perhaps it reveals something important too. As an introvert, for me the alarm bells start to go off internally if I notice I’m getting chatty or too talkative, because it’s not my natural inclination; my friends though seem to enjoy it, and say they’re glad to see this different side of my personality. It’s scary for me because talking too much makes me feel like I’ve lost control. But my friends don’t see a loss of control, they just see facets that were there all along. What feels like foolishness and even embarrassment to me can actually be received as warmth and openness to others, helping them to see and know more than they might otherwise.

St. Paul seems to think something similar is going on with Jesus: that in whatever folly he might have felt at his outbursts, the rest of us see something of God that we might not have seen otherwise; and chief of all, in the embarrassment and humiliation of the cross, we know something profound of the lengths to which love and grace can bring even God himself.

I once heard a wise priest use an illustration about eggs. If you put an egg into a pot of water and turn up the heat, and someone asks you, “What are you doing?” there are three ways to respond. First you can say, “Oh I’m boiling an egg.” Second you can say, “Oh I’m raising the temperature of the water, causing molecules to move faster and faster until a chemical change comes over the egg and it transitions from a liquid to a semi-solid state.” And third you can say, “Oh I’m making breakfast.” This priest went on to say, in the current state of the world, we are especially obsessed with the second way of answering, and sometimes with the first; but for the most part we’ve totally forgotten how to just make breakfast.

I don’t know about all that, but at least as far as Jesus and the Cross goes, he’s got a very good point. Too many people want to explain the Cross as merely the way God manages to bring himself to forgive us our sins. Or they take another tack and explain how such a sacrifice functions to expiate the indignation and wrath of a righteous judge. But Paul’s letter to the Corinthians seems to suggest that neither of these explanations quite hits the mark, and something both more simple and more difficult to explain might really be going on: simply that, as Jesus goes to the cross, he faces his final folly. He refuses to tell the truth about his mission and identity to Pilate. He refuses to correct the record for the high priest or perform tricks for the crowd to remind them they’d only just hailed him as the Messiah. And the result of his failure to correct the record is that he goes to the cross and dies.

What is he doing? Why doesn’t he try harder to save his own life? Why doesn’t he use the proper process of religious reform to clear the temple of the money changers? Why doesn’t he help Simon Peter see what’s really at stake, and instead just yell at him? Because he’s human first of all in addition to being the Son of God, and therefore given to limitations in judgement. But also and maybe more importantly, he’s heartbroken. He’s not “boiling an egg,” he’s not “increasing the speed of molecules” (although those are involved). What he is, is heartbroken. And heartbreak makes us do foolish things.

Why’s he heartbroken? Just turn on the news. He’s heartbroken that a world created for goodness has turned on itself such that it finds solace in murder rather than life, in manipulation rather than nurture, in networks rather than friends. And in the heartbreak of God, Jesus becomes human and goes to his own death.

Folly, plain and simple. It doesn’t fix anything, any more than a tub of ice cream or a long walk eliminates or resolves our own sadness or the works of our own foolishness. But what it does do, for Jesus’ disciples at least, is to reveal on Easter Day that love is stronger than death. The foolishness of God leads Jesus to a preventable and humiliating death. But the foolishness of God reveals also that death is not the end for those whose life is located in the love of God; that there is no last word sin or wickedness can claim over those who put their trust in God’s mercy.

Which brings up a very important question: how do we figure out what God is up to in the first place, and how do we measure our own success at following the mission we’ve been given? We’ve got to keep boiling eggs, and we’ve got to keep raising the temperature of the water in order to do that. But let’s not forget to make breakfast while we’re at it, and even more importantly, to eat it with relish.

By which I only mean, the foolishness we commit either from happiness or from heartbreak might be closer to the truth of things no matter how painfully it burns or how impossible it is to explain. It reveals something about the very deep love of God, and it sanctifies fools and victims of folly alike.

Whatever our favorite metric for personal or financial success, as far as God is concerned, the degree to which we are willing to let ourselves look foolish in the love of God, for better or for worse, is the degree to which we are aligned with God’s purposes. Do we have a particularly cherished image of ourselves? Are we pleased to be regarded as smart, or kind, or successful, or responsible, or popular, or dignified? Let the image go. Look a fool in your own eyes, and find yourself a friend in God’s.

As Lent carries on, then, let us have the courage to play the fool in love, so that we might grow all the closer to the heart of God.

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

Strangers to ourselves

This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Lent, 18 February 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. It was the Sunday following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and amid the national grief I wanted to explore ways toward what might constitute the beginning of a specifically “Christian” response — at least for myself and my own community — that did not rest on platitudes or attempt merely to soothe such grief and anger as cannot (and should not) be soothed.

Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted of Satan: Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

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

Well, here we are again. Another Lent, another school shooting, another weekend where we are all too aware of the fragility of human life amidst the forces that work to undo it. The pain in Florida is all the more acute as the stories come out that the policies and procedures designed to protect against someone like Nikolas Cruz broke down, and that those who were most worried could not get the help they needed before he started shooting.

Such things should not happen; such things continue to happen. One person with evil intent can ruin untold lives as easily as pulling a trigger or clicking a button. So we learn, and relearn, painfully, every time. Decades of love and support between parents and children, decades before that of growth and marriage and life, ended in the blink of an eye. Why is it so easy to ruin life, while it’s so difficult to nurture it?

Even deeper than the questions of gun control or public policy, why on earth does violence, killing, and death come so easily to so many, as a solution to problems or an outlet for emotions — or even, as in the case of Nikolas Cruz, as a pseudo-vocation?

In the face of such challenges as these, the world seems less and less familiar to us, and once-intimate places and confidences and relationships begin to break down, without a clear sense of where we’re going or how the tension can possibly be resolved.

As I’ve said before, our Religion doesn’t offer a convincing or even a reassuring answer to these questions. But it does give us a language for the grief, and Lent is as good a place as any to start. We began today with the Great Litany, as thorough an account of sin and suffering as there is, with dozens of petitions for forgiveness and deliverance. Today I at least am glad for the petition for God “Finally to beat down Satan under our feet” since at the moment Satan seems a good deal more in our faces than usual.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of the personal nature of evil: not just impersonal forces at work in the world, but forces in which in my own small way I participate, and by which I affect others, individuals as well as communities. School parents in Florida are finding evil inescapably personal this weekend, just as you and I do in smaller ways every time we examine our conscience. Praying the Great Litany here at the beginning of Lent collects all our griefs and all our shortcomings into one cry to God, one cry which unites the seemingly disparate “Save us, else we perish,” and, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

And then we get in the Gospel Jesus being tempted by Satan. St. Mark doesn’t give us details, but you’re probably familiar with the longer telling from St. Matthew: Jesus makes his own 40 day fast, his own Lent in the desert just after his baptism by John in the Jordan, where Satan comes to tempt him. The three temptations he faces are the three which undergird every other temptation we might face: the temptation first to change stones into bread, and so to remove a deadly threat both from Jesus’ own immediate experience and by extension one of the chief threats to life throughout the world. Second the temptation to rule all the nations, and, presumably, then, by wisdom and grace to solve all the problems they face and institute peace and justice once for all, at the cost merely of bowing the knee to worship the devil. And finally the temptation to cast himself down from the temple, for the angels to save and so reveal who Jesus really is, the son of God, and make everyone respect him accordingly.

You know the story: Jesus resists every temptation, and then he goes about his ministry. But it’s hard to overstate just how clever the devil is. He tempts Jesus with all the things he already is, he tempts him with the truth about himself: Jesus is the bread of life, the one without whom nothing was made that was made, the true life of all; Jesus is, in Isaiah’s words, the king of kings, before whom nations rightly pay homage; and Jesus is the Son of God, who needs neither angels nor human respect to prove who he is. The irony is, that if Jesus were to fall to the devil’s tempting, he would be betraying the very identity to which the temptations appeal.

This is how temptation works: the devil appeals always to what is closest and best about ourselves, not so that we might give up those things, but so that we might turn them to the devil’s nefarious purposes, and so find death in the midst of life.

In this way, sin makes us strangers to ourselves. We think we know what we’re getting into, and we find suddenly we’re somewhere we didn’t intend. A friend or a loved one confronts us, shows us how what we said or did affected them, and in that mirror we don’t recognize the self that we see. It made so much sense when we said it; it seemed inevitable, and self-evident when we decided on that course of action. And yet somehow it took us to a place where we don’t recognize who we are.

I think this is why it’s so hard for us to admit our wrongdoing, because it doesn’t always look like wrongdoing to us, despite the way it results in real, observable harm. And if it’s hard for you and me, how much harder for a whole community, or a whole nation, to see that its own dearest-held ideals have led directly to suffering, loss, and death.

So what do we do? Do we jettison group or national ideals, or surrender the whole project of self-examination in the first place? No, but this is where our religion might start to offer practical aid after all, where its language of grief and petition offers a solid starting point.

If we are often strangers to ourselves, then so much the more is the world, our home, a strange and unfamiliar place, full of unexpected threats and injuries. Much of our religion exists to mark and articulate the pain and the longing which go along with such a state. In the Church, and especially in Lent, we are given permission as it were not to feel at home in our world, or in our lives. And we are given a language both to lament this state of things and to hope for something more, something better, something warm and familiar and secure, something full of life, with a future beyond the current horizon, even if it be something we’ve never seen or considered before.

Lent takes us right to the doorstep of Holy Week, and to Jesus’ passion and death. We know that our own Lenten wandering will take us, too, right to the gates of death and beyond. The promise is that when we feel most a stranger to ourselves and to our world, there God is near, there God is more familiar to us than we are to ourselves. There a different pathway begins beyond zero-sum games of mercy or justice, compassion or righteousness, life or death. There God’s love recreates us, into the people we were always meant to be. There God’s love refashions the world.

This Lent, as we give voice to our grief, and voice to our longing for a better world and a better heart, let us not shy away from feeling a stranger to ourselves or to our world. It’s okay, to feel that things are not all right, and that we are not at home. We don’t have to have all the answers. But we do have to articulate our grief, and we do have to place our hope beyond where we can see right now.

So God draws near: mysteriously, unseen, where we feel most estranged and confused, even angry and unbelieving. There God sheds whatever tears are left after ours have long dried up, and in the desert where they fall a new world begins.

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

Ash Wednesday, 2018

This sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018, at St. Mark’s Church. I did not see the news until after the evening liturgy, but it was the same day as the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

In one of the parishes I served previously, there was a parishioner who loved Ash Wednesday, but who always refused to receive the imposition of ashes. She delighted in pointing out the irony in the way we observe the day: Jesus says in the Gospel appointed for today, “Do not make an outward show of your piety,” while here we are today, imposing ashes on our foreheads as an outward sign of our piety.

She’s not making it up, the irony really is there. But here we are anyway, about to receive the imposition of ash. Is the church really just that hypocritical? Or is there something more going on in what we do today?

The short answer is, No, I don’t think we’re being hypocritical, or at least not necessarily; and, Yes, I think there is something more going on in what we do with the ash today, and what we do with the rest of our prayers, our penitence, and our Lenten fasting.

So what’s the long answer? We live in a world where it’s more obvious than ever that doing good is no guarantee of success or security, and that unscrupulousness and downright wickedness bets ahead, time after time. Ash is a fitting symbol for such a world as this: a world where peace and goodness are discarded in favor of personal ambition and selfish grasping at things — individual ego or social power or both — can only lead to its own destruction both morally and literally. Ash is a sign of recognition, even a sign of protest, that such a world is not God’s intention, that more is possible, bore is necessary, if we are all not to end in fire and ruin. Ash is a sign of things to come, in such a world as this.

But the ash on our foreheads today is also a sign of hope. I will mark the ash on your forehead in the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross indicates death, no mistaking that. But more specifically it indicates Jesus’ death, and carries with it the symbolism of his resurrection from death. Jesus met his death on the cross, and with him must go all this world with all its selfishness and greed. But with him the world also rises from death into a new life free of death, free of every cloying, corrupting, destroying thing. The cross is a sign of hope, that what we see in the life of Jesus is being wrought in all creation by the Holy Spirit making all things new.

The ash is a sign of protest and the cross a sign of hope for the whole world. But it’s also inescapably personal. It’s on your own forehead after all. It’s a reminder that though we rail against the corruption and disorder of this world, we are implicated too: by our own choices, in our own way, small or great, we too have some part in the ruination of the world and of our souls. Every choice for self above others, every smug glance, every snide comment, every lost temper, contributes to the impoverishment of humanity and of myself at least as much as bad policy, unjust laws, or rapacious economies. I will go to destruction along with the world of which I am a part, I am not separate, I am not uninvolved, I am not innocent; so the ash reminds us.

And at the same time, Ash in the sign of the cross on your forehead recalls the moment when the same pattern was traced in the same place, in holy oil at your baptism. Another inescapably personal moment: when the forgiveness for which Jesus prays from the cross washes over you and becomes yours; when his death becomes yours, and his resurrection too. Ash in the sign of the cross a reminder and harbinger of death; and yet full of confident hope, that death does not have the last word, and that I, along with all things, am being made new.

So the imposition of Ash on Ash Wednesday is more than simply an outward display of piety; or it ought to be, if it’s to mean for us all that it can, and if we’re to escape the charge that Jesus levels against the Pharisees of his own day. It’s a sign of protest against this world and all its wickedness, a prophetic act by which we declare it can only end in fire and ruin. It’s also a penitential act, by which we’re reminded that we are not innocent either, and that we have some part in the ruination we see. But it’s also a hopeful act, for our world and for ourselves, that just as Christ himself died and rose again, so is the promise of God for each one of us: though the world around us turn to ash, yet new life “springeth green” out of the tomb.

It may be ironic that Our Lord counsels us against public displays of piety. And yet in our world today, public displays of piety are a powerful symbol both to ourselves and to the world, that there is a larger picture to which all of us are accountable, and to which we hold ourselves accountable; a larger narrative beyond this election cycle and beyond even this modern and postmodern era of the world. By our piety — by our prayers, our penitence, our fasting, our ashes — in short by our faithful and affectionate religion we participate in that larger narrative, gain some glimpse even now of its final promise, and are strengthened to do our part to live as if that promise were already here in full.

So this Ash Wednesday, let’s be conscious that these ashes are a way for God to say something to us, as well as a way for us to say something of God to the world. Wear your ashes boldly, let them be a sign, of penitence and the promise of new life.

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

On behalf of the absurd

This sermon was preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 11 February 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. In some ways it is a continuation of the theme begun last week, on worship – where it is directed, how it is conducted, what it means to participate, and the kind of life it shapes in those who undertake it as a regular part of their routine.

Collect: O God, who before the passion of thy only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; 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: 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

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

I always think it’s remarkable, that all the gospel writers and especially Mark seem to make such a big deal of Peter at the Transfiguration, and how he comes off like a blathering idiot. Maybe it’s just self-deprecation — tradition holds that Mark is a student of Peter’s, and wrote his Gospel from Peter’s remembrances — but whatever the source they all seem to dwell on it. “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

And for that matter it’s not really so idiotic as all that: on one level it’s just good hospitality: if a couple of prophets show up, especially ones taken up to heaven before their death and now shining with the glory of God, it’s just good manners to try and make them comfortable. I always thought Peter got short shrift: he’s not being an idiot, he’s being practical. And anyway, what else are you supposed to say when the voice of God speaks from heaven like thunder?

In our first lesson Elisha is in the same boat: Elijah gets taken up to heaven in chariots of fire, and all he can stammer out is an amazed exclamation, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Like someone cheering on a sports team, or, like in old stories of besieged cities, where at the last moment reinforcements finally arrive, unexpected and unhoped-for. It’s a crazy exclamation — “The chariots of Israel, and its horsemen!” But then it’s a crazy sight — fiery chariots descending from heaven, and taking up his friend and mentor. What else is he supposed to say?

The church has interpreted both of these stories, and particularly the Transfiguration as a moment of great theological clarity. On the mount of Transfiguration, God reveals something particularly significant about Jesus: not only does it reveal him as the Son of God, but also the dazzling brightness suggests the final, twin end of darkness brought about by his ministry: Jesus brings about the end of the darkness of death as well as the end of the darkness of ignorance. This is why we always read the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday before Lent, because it encapsulates the themes of the Epiphany, while also pointing us clearly towards Holy Week and the Resurrection.

But too often we stop there. Too often we consider religion something that we think about, have opinions about, even beliefs about, something that we have to explain or systematize. And all that stuff is important. The imaginative system that results is rich and beautiful, full of insight and loveliness. But thinking is only the beginning, if it’s even that.

I remember a story about a recently deceased bishop, who loved to rail against what he described as “voting for God.” Just as there’s more to civic engagement than appearing at a ballot box every four years, so there is more to religion than just deciding God is all right, saying so at convenient opportunities, and otherwise going about your business. This bishop was once on an airplane, traveling to some conference and wearing his clericals. The person sitting next to him noticed what he was wearing, and said something to the effect, “Oh you’re a priest! I believe in God, too.” To which the bishop replied, in a mood probably more saucy than charitable, “Great. How’s that working out for you?”

The wonderful thing about Peter and Elisha in today’s readings is that they point out to us: even at the very brink of profound and clear revelation, even before the face of Christ himself shining brighter than the sun, even when we hear the very voice of God in heaven thundering into our waking ears; even there and maybe especially there words fail, reason can go no further, and Peter and Elisha are both reduced to wild exclamations, remembered more for their absurdity than for their eloquence or profundity.

In that absurdity there is the suggestion that there is something closer to the heart of religion than words, or ideas, or clarity of expression; and that something is love.

I pointed out this week in my greeting in the leaflet: that there is something wonderful about the Transfiguration occurring with just Peter and James and John and not all twelve of the disciples. It’s an intimate moment: Jesus revealing the truth of himself to his three closest friends, not even to the rest of the twelve. And it suggests that at least as far as Jesus was concerned, the knowledge worth having, the knowledge worth sharing, begins with love, and not the other way around.

Same thing with Elisha: he and Elijah have been talking and walking long upon the road. Elijah is his mentor, his boss, and his friend; and whether or not Elisha’s request is granted is contingent not on any of his behavior or performance, but merely on whether or not he sees Elijah in the moment of his departure. Despite the absurdity of his cry when the chariots of fire come to collect, there’s no denying that it’s an episode full of tenderness, Elisha not wanting to leave this person who has meant so much to him.

I’m sure Elijah taught him many things; but it’s not the teaching that Elisha will miss, rather the teacher. It’s not the end of the ideas that gives him grief, but the sundering of their bond of affection across whatever gulf was coming to separate them. Yes as far as religion is concerned, the knowledge worth having begins with love, and not love with knowledge.

So back to the bishop on the airplane. He was irritated that this fellow merely wanted to share his “vote for God.” The bishop’s somewhat caustic reply was aimed at asking the deeper question: how does your belief matter, how does it make a difference in your life, where does it begin, and where does it end? Most importantly, what about your heart? You believe in God; do you love God? Do you love God’s people, God’s world? Because without that, I’m afraid your vote for God doesn’t count for much.

So knowledge worth having starts with love, and not the other way around; and love always brings us to the brink of what can and cannot be said, of what can and cannot be put into words. By that accounting, Peter and Elisha both are pardoned for their absurdity, and much beloved.

This year I am particularly conscious myself, being in a new place, of the limits of my own skill and capacity; which has me thinking about the limits of our religion as a whole. It makes me wonder, too: what we do on Sundays, and throughout the week: all our worship, all our prayers, all our writing and our reading; speaking at least for myself, sometimes I think we flatter ourselves that it is our part to articulate the mysteries of God just as the voice from heaven proclaimed to Peter and James and John the truth of who Jesus is, and to clear up all the darkness by our own brilliance. But I think it might be nearer the case that all our words and all our learning and all our worship, when they’re at their best, are nearer to the crazed expostulations of Peter and of Elisha: “My Father, My Father! The Chariots of Israel and its Horsemen!” “Lord it is good that we are here, let us make three tents, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

These exclamations do not make sense on their own; no exegetical or scholarly acrobatics are sufficient to explain them satisfactorily. And yet, taken as part of a whole defined first by affectionate encounter between persons who love one another, we can both laugh at Peter and recognize in him something of our own deeply felt devotion and tenderness. So let our own worship, and prayer, and thought serve as faltering, imperfect, even absurd steps of love towards Peter’s God and ours.

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany and Lent is right around the corner. Today let’s resolve afresh to resist the temptation to explain or even understand before exercising our faculties of tenderness and of love. So may we find truth revealed for us: not as so many facts or laws or doctrines or even as so many convictions or beliefs; but rather as an encounter of love, with Christ who first loved us.

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

Now what?

This sermon preached was on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 4 February 2018, at St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley, CA. It was the Sunday of our Annual Meeting, when we held a single combined service at 9am, and proceeded directly to the parish hall for a pot-luck lunch and proceedings.

Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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

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

One of the saddest stories I hear as a priest is a story I’ve heard many times. An alcoholic husband or wife checks into rehab, finds AA, and begins recovery. A happy story! But too often, the change creates new challenges which are too different, too difficult to bear, and the couple divorces. Totally apart from moral evaluation, sometimes it seems the system, with its relationships, roles, and expectations, had grown dependent on the sickness, and healing was too great a change to sustain.

Or in other cases during a long illness families will rally around the sick member, but when healing finally comes there is no energy left for living life. I remember one case specifically, first-time parents had a infant son born prematurely, with several medical complications. It was two years before he was strong enough to begin a normal childhood development. The family was thrilled at his recovery, but within a few months there was trouble. The mother finally came to me and said, “You know in some ways it was easier when he was sick, I knew what to do and what was expected of me. But now what? Every small accomplishment my son achieved before was a reminder to me that there was still hope. But now I just find myself annoyed all the time, and unsure what to do next, or even what to hope.” I didn’t know what to tell her, except to affirm the difficult message that healing is sometimes just as hard to manage as sickness.

Today’s Gospel lesson is no stranger to this kind of tension. Simon Peter’s mother in law is sick. We don’t know how long she was sick, but it seems long enough at any rate for Peter to have gone to his work fishing on the Sea of Galilee, met Jesus walking there, started following him, and brought him back to Capernaum. When Jesus heals her she gets up and begins to serve them. It’s the first time in the Gospel that the word we translate as “deacon” is used, and by some renderings that makes Peter’s mother-in-law the first Deacon. Talk about a change in relationship and expectations! And for that matter, she’s his mother-in-law — was Peter still married at the time he was called as a disciple? And what would that have done to his relationship with his wife? Or, as one church tradition holds, was Peter a widower taking care of his late wife’s mother? Either way, the healing that Jesus brings is a life-altering kind of healing. Nothing will ever be the same again, either for Peter or for his mother in law.

A lot of times I think we look for healing as a kind of answer to our problems, and certainly it resolves whatever presenting issue of illness or suffering we might be facing. But what then? Life was not the same for Peter or for his mother-in-law; and when you and I try to get back to life as usual, so often it fails so spectacularly that we find our relationships breaking down, to a place where they might not recover.

So what then? Is “life as usual” just a myth? Is healing not worth having after all? Our passage from Isaiah might be one of the most glorious in all of Scripture: “Those who wait for the Lord will rise up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” But is it just an illusion? I don’t think so.

Healing is certainly one of the things the Gospel promises, certainly one of the chief marks of Jesus’ ministry on earth and one of the chief marks of his Church’s mission. But the simple truth is that Christian healing doesn’t fix anything. One of my favorite examples is Blind Bartimaeus, sitting on the road to Jericho calling to the Son of David. Jesus restores his sight, and immediately Bartimaeus follows him on the road: the road that will lead directly to Jerusalem, Good Friday, and the tomb. No, Christian healing doesn’t fix anything. If anything it only clarifies our powers of sight, to enable us to face death more squarely; more squarely and with greater hope.

Forgiveness presents the same problem: it cuts off the memory of sin and wrong, dissolving it in the grace of God. As a priest it has been my privilege to hear many first confessions, as well as make my own, and every time the experience is similar: the penitent often feels awash in a sense of immediate and transcendent liberation, the weight gone which had become so familiar they’d forgotten it was something they were carrying. And yet, even in such a powerful moment as that, the problem remains: what now? The psalmist reflects, “Our sins are stronger than we are” – but what happens when they’re gone? What do we do with our newfound freedom? What do we do with what do we fill our time, and our memories?

Healing and forgiveness both present great blank walls to the Christian imagination. What came before is over. Now what? There can be no return to business as usual. Forgiveness and healing both reveal business as usual for what it is: a vast series of compromises and concessions, overfunctioning and underfunctioning, to compensate for the pain, difficulty, and disappointment which characterize so much of our life in this world. There can be no peace with anything that diminishes life, no return to patterns of corruption and decay.

So what do we do with that blank wall? What do we do with the vast unknown stretching out beyond the joy of healing, beyond the freedom of forgiveness? Simply put, that is where Christian life begins, the door from which the Kingdom of God opens onto unknown horizons. We make our first faltering steps through that door and find the blank emptiness resolving, into all the manifold splendors of God.

We cannot tell what each of us shall be on the other side, just as in Scripture we hear no more of Simon Peter’s mother in law, or indeed of almost anyone whom Jesus heals. But we know that our steps beyond will lead us finally to the truth of who we are, and to a fullness of life which nothing can diminish; an innocence, a naivety, which is not ignorance but a new delight in everything that is good, no matter how drab or shabby “Business as usual” becomes.

The challenge, of course, is to make these faltering steps into the unknown of healing and forgiveness even now, today, while we are still afflicted with everything that grieves us. This is part of why worship is so important: here in church, by the Holy Spirit, we are put in touch, literally in touch, with the food and furniture of heaven, even with the body and blood of Jesus.

The disorientation is strong, highlighted in church by the unfamiliar in architecture, language, music, and even occasionally incense; highlighted in life by the unfamiliar which healing and forgiveness reveal in our loved ones, the unplumbed depths of the mystery of human persons. And yet enter the tension we must, if Christian healing and forgiveness are to mean for us what they can, if we are to move through the disorientation towards a new sight: not just to face death, but to enter into life, and walk along its paths into the further undiscovered horizons of the all-abiding love of God.

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