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"

Tag: church

Where are you?

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on June 10, 2018, the Third Sunday after Pentecost. This week has seen several high profile suicides on the national scene, and a number of tragic young deaths on the local scene. Mortality has been very much on our minds, which, together with this Sunday’s reading from Genesis 3, created an occasion for me to reflect on the pain of separation which often lies so close to the human experience. Those who know Bach’s St. Matthew Passion will recognize the text of one of the final recitatives, Am Abend da es kühle war, underlying a passage towards the end of this sermon. For more on the specifically religious quality of the separation between God and humanity, I suggest Matthew Myer Boulton’s book, God Against Religion.

Collect: O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 3:8-15, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

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

One of the worst phone calls I ever received was from a friend of mine, in the summer after we’d both finished college; he’d gone to New York to pursue a career in finance, and I was still getting ready to leave for my MA program starting that fall. Our group of mutual friends was aware he was having a hard time adjusting to his new life, we all were in our various ways, but no one could have foreseen the shape it would take for him. I remember vividly that desperate phone call late at night, my friend making no sense at all but clearly terrified and clearly in trouble. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to ask for clarification; and finally, in tears, he asked plaintively, “Where are you Blake, where are you?” Before hanging up. It was bad enough my friend was in trouble, it was even worse feeling totally helpless, and unable even to understand what was wrong. We later learned it was a schizophrenic breakdown. He was hospitalized, treated, and has long since recovered. But his plaintive cry still haunts my memories of that summer — “Where are you?”

“Where are you?” One of the reasons that question cuts so close to the quick is because of what it presupposes about the other person. It presupposes that they are already such an important part of our life that we feel they must be there for our life to be recognizably our own — meaningful, safe, full of warmth and love. It presupposes their presence, permanent and reliable, a part of the furniture of our lives. Whether dear friends, husbands and wives, or especially parents and their children, “Where are you?” is a cry almost guaranteed to bring the other person running without a second thought. And when that response is prevented, either by distance or by other obstacle, we don’t just feel disappointed, we grieve. We grieve the loss – or at least the absence – of something presupposed, something reliable: a presence sustaining and life-giving, without which we no longer know what to make of our lives, let alone the world we live in.

When we usually read Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent getting punished for their parts in the affair with the tree and its forbidden fruit, we most often concern ourselves with how to explain what they did wrong, how you and I continue to be implicated in their misbehavior so many countless generations later, the role of the serpent in the whole business, and what the set of curses God issues means for the subsequent history of the world and of religion as a whole.

Today though I want to start somewhere else. Genesis has been relatively light so far on giving specific details of dramatic setting. But here in chapter three, after Adam and Eve eat the fruit, suddenly it’s evening. And not just evening, but “the time of the evening breeze.” They hear the sound of God walking in the midst of the garden, and they hide themselves because they’re afraid. God says, “Where are you?” And Adam replies, “We heard you walking and I was afraid because we were naked, so we hid ourselves.”

“Where are you?” “We were afraid so we hid ourselves.” This is it, the whole tragedy in a nutshell. What’s remarkable to me is less the litany of curses and the subsequent dysfunction, and more the fact that God assumes that Adam and Eve are around in the first place, and available for conversation and fellowship. The implication seems to be, that “at the time of the evening breeze” God was accustomed to spending time with them, and they likewise. Somehow, Adam and Eve and God had enjoyed an easy, daily fellowship, a fellowship which, judging from God’s question, “Where are you?” Had grown into a communion of mutual confidence.

Forget the fruit, the pain here in Genesis 3 is that the communion between God and humanity’s first parents is broken — and broken to such a degree that Adam and Eve’s first impulse at hearing God’s approach is to be afraid, and to hide. “Where are you?” is now the defining question articulating the relationship between God and humanity. Gone are the days of easy, friendly intimacy; and by the third verse of the next chapter there have already begun the long eons of sacrifice, misunderstanding, murder, and estrangement.

The pain of separation, of estrangement, is real. There are lots of explanations for how it happens, whether we’re talking about Adam and Eve and God or the people in our own lives who were once very close but are no longer: time passes, life changes, people make different decisions, they prioritize different things, and a million other such theories. But none of them are ever satisfactory, because the simple truth is that human beings weren’t made for estrangement. We were made for communion, for an abiding fellowship of love with one another and with God. And the degree to which we are prevented or inhibited — whether by sin or injury or injustice or indifference, or the simple increase of distance or passage of time — is the degree to which we are dehumanized and the world reflects that much less of God. This is the way death crept into the world, and we have been paying the price ever since.

How do we fix it? How do we get it back? How do we restore the communion we lost, the grace from which we fell? First of all, treasure the loving relationships you have, thank God for them and let them be signs to you of what was intended at first and what will yet be fulfilled in the course of Providence. Treasure the ones you have lost as well, lost to death, time, or any of the other moths that fret away what is mortal, for the signs they were and remain of the same promise.

But second of all, and more than that, while we cannot erase or fix the terms of our estrangement, God is quietly but surely sewing back together the fragments of our shattered world. In Nazareth the Son of God joined himself to human nature, overcoming once and for all the separation between God and humanity. And while in the evening God asked Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” when he could not find them, on another evening the dove returned to Noah bearing an olive branch indicating the flood had lifted. And on still another evening, they laid Jesus in the tomb, whereupon he harrowed hell to seek and to find every lost soul and to carry them back to his Father’s home, where they shall be lost no longer forever.

Today God continues, “soul by soul and silently,” to restore the lost communion humanity was created to share: chiefly by the Sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, and the others, in which we participate most clearly and specifically in God’s own life; but also and more frequently by the simple decision of people every day to recognize love when it is being offered, and to reciprocate the gift likewise. We can’t always recognize it, and we can’t always give what is being asked. But by God’s grace we can begin to translate across the gulfs of separation, need, and capacity to requite the love with which we are surrounded, both human and divine. This will take much of our time, and all of our patience. We will need to practice forgiveness continually, and penitence too for the injuries we will inevitably cause. We will need to turn ourselves back to God time and time again, in order to catch the vision afresh, the vision of just how beautiful creation is as it is intended to be, how deeply it resonates in our spirits and how far it reverberates throughout the world. But such is the gift of the Holy Spirit, living and active within us to accomplish what we cannot even see by ourselves alone let alone achieve.

In the meantime, we cannot settle for a world where isolation and estrangement continue to bring death and destruction to so many. It is “the way the world works,” as cynics correctly identify; but it is not the way it was intended to work, and it is not the way it will finally conclude. “Where are you?” God’s chilling and heartbreaking question to Adam and Eve is answered by the gift of Emmanuel, “God with us,” sent from heaven to earth to reach out and find you and me beyond all the barriers of sin, fear, silence, and regret we’ve thrown up in the way.

Let’s you and I continue to reach out in his Name. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. You and I are the connection required, the missing link, in order to begin right here in this place overcoming fear and shame to restore the communion we were made for. Do not settle for “the way things are,” but reach out, and let love be requited with love, to the glory of God, for the life of the world.

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

All Saints, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are the salt of the earth

This sermon was preached Sunday morning, February 5, 2017, at CSMSG, the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  Music at the 9:15 choral mass included the Charles Wood (1866-1926) anthem, Expectans expectavi (“The sanctuary of my soul”). Listen to a recording here, and see the words here.

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

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”  In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

As I was preparing for this sermon today, I spent some time in a nearby coffee shop. One of the things I was doing there was reading through a commentary on what various ancient and medieval Christian authors had to say about salt and light.  

As I read, I started noticing the table next to me having a more and more heated conversation. Two men were talking about current events, and one of them was trying to convince the other of something controversial. The argument carried on, and finally one man said to his friend, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand, you watch the wrong news!” That seemed to end the conversation, or at least the loud part of it, and I refocused on my reading.

I’m sure you’ve heard most of the symbolic meanings of salt already: it’s a preservative, a flavoring that makes food worth tasting in the first place, a cauterizing agent. But St. Jerome makes a very interesting, relatively uncommon reading: he recalls that armies carried salt on campaign with them. When they finally won the battle and had reduced their enemies’ cities to ruins, they would sow the ground with salt, so that nothing would ever grow there again, and the desolation of the place would be a reminder of the victor’s total conquest.

Of course St. Jerome meant that God in Christ has conquered the devil, and that you and I are the salt God sows in the devil’s territory to keep down the weeds of sin and wrong. But as I read all this I couldn’t help but remember the last word in the argument I’d overheard, “You wouldn’t understand, you watch the wrong news.” We are always tempted to sow salt of our own, not in the devil’s fields but in each other’s, especially from opposite sides of whatever great arguments have currency in our own day.

St. Jerome was certainly a great saint, but reading of the salt of the earth was a very sensitively human one, deeply aware of our obsession with scorched earth policies and winner-take-all kinds of games.

“You watch the wrong news.” It was Jerome’s belief, and just about everyone else’s up until the Enlightenment, that the senses were the windows of the soul. What we hear and see, smell, touch, and taste, enters the mind itself through our ears and eyes and all the rest, which function literally as windows and doors, allowing traffic between our inner life and the outside world. From the mind, the things our senses perceive enter the soul. And in the process they can be recognized, known, and, ultimately, loved.

It doesn’t make much sense scientifically, but the philosophy allows for a particularly beautiful kind of relationship between ourselves and the world: the more we see of the world, the more it is a part of us, and we of it. And likewise the more barriers we put up between ourselves and what’s out there, the more stunted and anemic we become, while the world, likewise, is also impoverished by our isolation.

This is the context in which some of Jesus’ other statements might make a little more sense: “Let those with eyes to see, see; and those with ears to hear, hear.” One of the ways of understanding the gifts of the Gospel is as a clarification of our sight, to see things as they are, and to love them as we ought.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from a former parishioner at another parish, telling me about the wonderful things God had done in his life this past Thanksgiving. He and his daughter had been estranged for years, after many misunderstandings and mutually-inflicted injuries. They hadn’t spoken in no one remembered how long. Then out of the blue one afternoon in early November, he received a note from her, saying she and her family would be nearby for Thanksgiving, and would he join them? In his letter to me, this father said his first thought was, “I’d rather die, thank you very much.” But after some serious thought and honest self-examination, he decided he would say yes. He went to Thanksgiving expecting no great miracles or even civility. But in the event, after much talking, many tears, and forgiving all around, he found he had regained his daughter, and she her father. Truly it was an answer to prayer, and for that matter a prayer he hadn’t dared to make in years.

What does this have to do with the senses? If this father had decided to write off his daughter because she “watched the wrong news,” so to speak, because she had the wrong idea of him and would never change, healing could never have come. As it happened, her decision to invite him to Thanksgiving, and his decision to go, allowed that each of them, themselves, was for the other the only news they needed: this person who had become a stranger could again be known and loved if only they both agreed to drop the barriers of injury and suspicion which impeded their senses and closed their minds to further possibility, which closed the doors of the soul between a daughter and her father.

“You are the salt of the earth.” With all respect and great deference to St. Jerome, his image only goes so far. If we are sown by God to poison the devil’s fields, we only turn traitors and serve the devil if we poison each other’s instead. William Temple, one of the great Archbishops of Canterbury of the last few centuries, a prolific scholar and a saintly man, served only two years as Archbishop before his death, but they were perhaps two of the most crucial years in his century: 1942 to 1944, the deepest, darkest nadir of the Second World War. Among many other things, Temple is famous for his quote: “The Church is the only society in the history of the world which exists primarily for the benefit of people who are not its members.”

“You are the salt of the earth.” Temple would not have been comfortable recommending poisonous behavior of any kind. He had seen more than his share of poisonous activity in his life already, both by nations and by individuals. For him, the Church’s vocation to be “the salt of the earth” was not Jesus’ way of flattering his disciples into good behavior. Rather for Temple, for the Church to be “the salt of the earth” meant that the Church, we, you and I, had a responsibility not only to one another, but to the whole world as well: to be the sort of people with whom forgiveness is possible, despite whatever barriers might exist between us, be they never so real, painful, or arresting; to be the sort of people in whom a father and his daughter might be reconciled; to be the sort of people in whom enemies might become friends; the sort of people who refuse to close their senses to one another but keep the highways open between souls, that love may abound to the glory of God.

“You are the salt of the earth.” Back in that coffee shop, this means we ought to be people who aren’t afraid of the news; who aren’t afraid of it, and who also aren’t merely spectators. “You are the light of the world.” This isn’t flattery either, but the same vocation. Salt of the earth, light of the world. Jesus is calling us to be people who refuse to put our heads in the sand, who refuse to “sit this one out” (whatever “this one” may be for you), and who commit ourselves to making the world worth tasting to begin with, who make the world worth seeing in the first place.

We do this by our God-given freedom to know strangers, to forgive friends, and to love enemies, and thereby to create new possibilities for life and growth where before there had been only ignorance or despair. This is the beginning of the Kingdom of God. Because for us, Christ has taken the scales off our eyes: his Cross looms large in each of our senses. We see there the glory of God to transform sin, pain, injustice, estrangement, defeat, and even death itself into the bed of hope, the dawn of eternal life. There at his Cross we see tied the indissoluble bonds of holy affection which unite in one family those who formerly had no knowledge or need of one another. And this is the beginning of the Church.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Christians are people who taste and see, first and foremost, that the Lord is Good, and that this is what makes life worth living. Our vocation is no less for each other and for the whole human race. Salt and light: to make the earth worth tasting, the world worth seeing, and life worth living: that all may see and know; that knowing, we may also love; and that loving, we may all be saved.

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