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: Cross

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.

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.

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the crossroads of silence and noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One thing is needful”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrestling with God

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

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in Christ hast revealed thy glory among the nations: Preserve the works of thy mercy, that thy Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sticks, Carrots, and the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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