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: CSMSG

“One thing is needful”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past vs Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Samaritan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter Evening, 2016

The following sermon was preached at 5:30pm on Easter Sunday, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George.

Collect: Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Luke 24:13-49

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

The road to Emmaus. This has always been one of my favorite Easter episodes. It’s evening of Easter Sunday.  These two disciples have already heard the good news, reports going through their company that Jesus has risen from the dead.  There is uncertainty in the air.  Can it be true?  As they say on the road, they had hoped that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel, and yet he was crucified in a public spectacle only three days ago.  They need some air, they need to get away, and so they decide to leave Jerusalem and walk to a familiar town, Emmaus, a day’s journey away.  Perhaps some distance will help them understand, perhaps a change of scenery will clear their heads.

On the way, Jesus meets them as they go.  As with Mary Magdalene earlier this morning, Jesus surprises his disciples by catching them unawares, absorbed as they are in the emotional demands of the moment.  Equally amazingly, these disciples don’t recognize him any faster than Mary did.  They find it unbelievable that he hasn’t heard about Jesus of Nazareth and his crucifixion, so they tell him.  He finds it unbelievable that they still don’t understand, so he explains the scriptures to them again, as he must have done a thousand times while he was with them: the Messiah was meant to suffer and die, and be raised up again.  They reach their destination, and they beg their new friend to stay with them, rather than going on as he seemed intent on doing.  So he does, and they eat together.  Finally, as he breaks the bread over supper, they recognize him as Jesus, and he suddenly departs.

It’s a story full of deeply human characters and emotion, entirely believable from a psychological perspective.  Grief, coping, encounter, journey, friendship, hospitality, there’s a lot here to relate to.  The specific observation I want to make tonight is that among the many familiar human aspects of the story, there is also a lot of explaining going on.  The disciples explain to Jesus the last few days in Jerusalem.  The risen Jesus explains to them the Scriptures.  The disciples explain to Jesus their plans to stay the night at Emmaus, and, in the course of agreeing to stay with them, and blessing and breaking the bread, Jesus explains his own priorities: namely, to be with them where they are, and to reveal himself as the bread of life, broken for the salvation of the world.  As if all these explanations aren’t enough, he disappears as soon as they recognize him, and they a left with more questions than answers.  So they rush all the way back to Jerusalem, no doubt arriving in the middle of the night – the same hour as the Resurrection by the way, early that morning 24 hours before – and tell their story to Peter and the other disciples.

More questions than answers.  Explanations leading onto further investigation, further investigation leading onto further experience, leading onto further life and love and beyond.  The point here is that, when it comes to the Gospel of the Resurrection of the Son of God, the final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.  When it comes to the Gospel of the Resurrection of the Son of God, the final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.

Why?  Why is it that we can never quite seem fully to nail it down?  For the same reason the nails of the soldiers could not keep Jesus on the cross, or the stone keep him in the tomb.  This God of ours, who comes to earth from heaven, dies at our hand, and rises from the tomb, this God is always his own explanation, and his own final meaning.  There is no mastery of his Gospel apart from the knowledge of himself, the personal knowledge of who he is — which is to say, the personal experience of his grace and love.  There is no mastery of his Gospel apart from the knowledge and love of himself.  And as a Person, there is always more to him than we might see at any given moment, just as there is always more to the other people in our lives.

Thanks to Easter Sunday, the Christian life is a fundamentally adventurous one.  No explanation is finally sufficient of itself, for God himself is his own meaning and his own explanation.  No portrait can be complete for Jesus, who bursts through the tomb, through every limit and every convention.  There is no explaining the extent of his mercy or the wide breadth of his creativity.  There is no grasping the depth of the wellspring of his grace, or his capacity to forgive.  There is no telling where he might take us or what might be next.  This God is our God, and he is always one step ahead of us, calling us to follow him further up and further in, through the tomb, through the Garden, to Emmaus, his own Ascension, Pentecost, and beyond.  What’s next?  Where will he take us?  How will we recognize him in an hour, tomorrow, next year?  There is no telling.  His final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.

And yet no matter where we are on our own roads to Emmaus, no matter what sense we’ve been able to make of the last few days, of our own lives, or the talk of his Gospel, Jesus Christ meets us on the road, listens to us explain to him whatever sense we’re able to make of him, and stays with us when we ask.  He stays with us, eats with us, shares himself with us – and then goes on ahead of us to draw us further on to where he is.  He has led the way through life and death, hell and heaven, and he calls us further we know not where.  And yet we know that where he is, there he longs for us to be also.

Will you ask Jesus to stay with you this Easter Sunday?  He comes to us on whatever road we walk, and offers himself at this Altar to be the true nourishment of our souls.  Will you ask him to stay with you?  Will you prepare a place for him in your heart?  Will you follow where he leads?  Will you trust he goes on ahead of you to prepare a place for you?  There is always more to him than we can grasp now, and yet his whole purpose is for us to know him forever, to dwell in his love till the ages of ages.  He stays with us; he goes beyond us.  Won’t you follow him on this unknown adventure?  Know that wherever he leads, his love will be our end, our support, our map; his resurrection our guarantee, our gate; and his glory our inheritance and our home.

The Lord is risen indeed! Come, let us worship. Come, let us live — in the surprising, beautiful, ever-widening world of his eternal life.

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

“Everything just feels right there.”

St. Louis Abbey

The following homily was preached on Sunday, March 6, 2016 (the fourth Sunday of Lent), at a service of Choral Evensong at the St. Louis Abbey, sung by the CSMSG choir as part of our continuing relationship with the monks of that Community.  I officiated and preached, and we were all the grateful recipients of warm hospitality from the Abbot and brothers. “A good time was had by all!” I think this is one of the best things we do here at CSMSG, and I pray this relationship continues a long and happy one!

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth live 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.

Lessons: Romans 8:11-25; John 6:27-40

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

A friend of mine is a parish priest in Denver, Colorado.  Just this weekend he returned from making a Lenten retreat at a nearby monastery.  In the course of telling me how it went, he praised the quiet, the mountains, the hiking, the other guests; but most of all he appreciated the community and the life they led.  He summed up his experience by saying, “I’m convinced it’s one of the most sacred and beautiful places on earth for me.  Everything just feels right there.”

Everything just feels right there.  His words resonate with me, and I suspect with a lot of people.  There are places we go in life where everything just feels right.  Monasteries seem especially able to communicate this.  There is something fundamentally right about the work of God which is carried out here, something deeply beautiful about a community’s life ordered as a school of the Lord’s service.  They are places which are resonant with the Spirit calling as deep to deep, where “the final revealing of the sons of God” often seems to be at the very brink.  The church, the grounds, and most of all the members of the community themselves, impress themselves on the visitor as icons of the way things ought to be.  I always find it remarkable how quickly visitors start to feel at home in a monastery, even on their very first visit; and I have to think that a large part of that is a response to the feeling that here, things are as they ought to be.

Of course, this side of heaven, things are rarely as they ought to be, even in a monastery.  And in fact, the more things appear to be just as they ought, the more vigilant we must be, not to let evil and vice creep in unnoticed.  Parishes are the same way, and families; cities and states and nations too.  It is often very easy for a generous visitor to see a new country as the portrait of its own ideals.  But its citizens can always tell a different story.

Why is it that visitors see the good, while citizens see all the rest?  Are they simply deluded?  I don’t think so.  I think rather that there is simply something about being a guest in a place, that clears the vision and allows the good to shine through.  Likewise, there is something about being a citizen of a place that highlights its weaknesses, its challenges, and the work that still has to be done.

Which of these aspects is the more true?  The grace witnessed and experienced by the guest, or the mundane, ordinary life of the citizen?  Probably a little of both.  The English spiritual author G.K. Chesterton once observed that our “spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like [our] physical sight: [we] see two different pictures at once, and yet see all the better for that.”

The world wants to see contradiction and hypocrisy in the Church because so far we do not yet exhibit the holiness and perfect unity in love which our Lord promised and for which he prayed the night before his death.  Likewise we can be dissatisfied with our vocations, wherever they may plant us, because it is much easier to see grace at work abroad than in the complicated and confusing humdrum of our own lives.  The place where everything is as it ought to be, where “everything just feels right,” is very frequently somewhere else, somewhere farther on ahead of us, which we may visit from time to time but cannot yet call our own.

What, then, are we to do?  How do we answer the world?  How do we resolve our own contradictions?  Where can we go to be finally and forever at home?  Our lessons tonight suggest that the best answer to these questions is to be always at prayer.

All may not be right with the world or with ourselves, but in prayer we are moved by the Spirit into the presence of our heavenly Father, who is our eternal home.  In prayer the two contradictory visions of our spiritual sight overlap, and we see in three dimensions. Our sin: not just our fall from glory, but also the occasion of our redemption.  Heaven: not just a promise for the end of time, but also our strength and nourishment even now as the Spirit moves within us.  Though the world about us fall to pieces; though we ourselves be racked by temptation, disquiet, and uncertainty; in prayer we are joined to Our Lord’s own eternal offering of himself to his Father, even as we are also joined to the Father’s gift of his Son for us and for all creation.

In prayer, we are always at home — even if we be thousands of miles away, even if we be separated from our families or broken from their fellowship.  In prayer, the groaning of whatever suffering we experience in this present life is joined to the agony of Our Lord and the birth pangs of the Spirit.  In prayer we begin to be made new.  All might not be right with this world, with ourselves, with whatever place it is we are.  Yet in prayer,  however agonizing it might be for us, in prayer we are at home: everything is as it ought to be, we are on the doorstep of heaven, and the One who dwells there recognizes us for his own.

As Lent draws on towards Holy Week and the Paschal Mystery, let us resolve to be people of prayer: which is to say, let us be guests of heaven.  Let us throw ourselves on Heaven’s hospitality.  And so heaven’s Host will wash our feet, bind our wounds by his own, give us his peace which passeth all understanding, and feed us with his own Body and Blood.  So we shall be both guests and citizens at once, heirs of his eternal life.

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

“Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

The following sermon was preached on Sunday, February 21, 2016 (the second Sunday of Lent), at the Church of St. Michael & St. George.  Services today, as all through Lent, begin with the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and Penitential Rite (Summary of the Law with Confession), in which each commandment is read aloud followed by the whole congregation saying together, “Lord have mercy and incline our hearts to keep thy law.” Following all the commandments we say the general confession and hear the words of pardon. This takes the place of the Confession later in the service.

Collect: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ thy Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 15:1-18Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

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

A few years ago I met a priest who had been a guest preacher at Eton College Chapel in England.  As you may know, Eton College is one of the world’s great boarding schools, where boys from 13 to 18 years old have been educated in the shadow of Windsor Castle since the reign of Henry VI, in 1440.  The school has sometimes been called “the nursemaid of the empire,” and it has been the alma mater of monarchs, statesmen, and churchmen alike (both the present Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury are alumni, to name two examples).  Since its founding, daily worship has been offered in the school chapel, according to all the seasonal changes and chances of the Book of Common Prayer.

This preacher whom I met had arrived at the chapel early, since he wanted to check a reference in his sermon against the Prayer Books in the chapel seats (which of course were then — and still are! —  the Book of Common Prayer of 1662).  He chose the nearest prayer book, and on opening it, the pages fell naturally to the “Table of Consanguinity,” the page that lists all the persons in a person’s family whom he or she is not permitted to marry.

This amused the preacher, and as he scanned the familiar list, he noted some writing in the margin: next to the line saying that a man may not marry his grandmother, some poor homesick boy had written, “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law!”

Of course the boy was making a wordplay on the lines we just spoke earlier this morning: they are part of our “Penitential Rite” which we use at the beginning of our services during Lent, and which are spoken with at least the same frequency in the English prayer book.  “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”  Whether reciting the Ten Commandments or steeling ourselves against the charms of Grandma, it’s a wonderful prayer to keep in our back pockets and at the tips of our tongues!

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is also engaging in a little wordplay.  First he calls Herod a fox, which is funny enough: this Herod was not his father: his father was the Herod who talked himself into a fruitful alliance with the Romans, who had engaged in massive building plans, negotiated with the three wise men, and left his kingdom far stronger than he found it.  This Herod, the son, was no great politician.  He had presided over the fracture of his father’s kingdom into much smaller bits, an outright takeover bid by new Roman Governors, and couldn’t manage to keep a lid on the intrigue in his own house let alone his kingdom.  Jesus is making fun of Herod by calling him a sly fox.  But then he continues, by referring to himself as a hen!  Foxes and henhouses, the implication is clear: Herod is out to get him.  Jesus reflects that as much of a fool as Herod might be, Jerusalem will still be his doom, even as it was the doom of all the prophets before him.

Jesus concludes his rueful reverie with yet another wordplay, this one a little more biting: “Behold, your house is forsaken, and I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

“Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  First of all Jesus is referring back to Psalm 118, one of the great liturgical psalms used in Jewish feasts, in which the whole people of God is summoned to praise the Lord, “whose mercy endureth forever.”  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is one of the concluding verses of that Psalm, and serves to point the whole singing congregation towards the saving activity of God on behalf of his people.  It is one of the great summaries in Scripture of the whole purpose of the prophets.

Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.  By saying that people will not see him until they say this line, Jesus is identifying himself with that tradition of prophecy and praise.  But more than this, he is also foreshadowing his own triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  In true prophetic fashion, his witty play on words serves a real predictive purpose: this is exactly the chorus that the crowds will shout on Palm Sunday: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Of course the irony, which Jesus knows all too well, is that the crowd will not crown him king except with a crown of thorns, and they will not set him on a throne but nail him to the cross.  The even deeper irony is that, though they do this to mock him, their coronation is a true one: the Lord of Glory, who comes in the Name of his Father, does reign from that tree: from that cross he works the salvation the prophets had promised, and truly is it said of him, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Jesus’ wordplay here is not just the tired and somewhat caustic commentary it initially appears to be.  His wit plays the whole prophetic and religious tradition of his people off of his own upcoming triumphal entry, passion, and crucifixion.  In a moment of sly humor, Jesus makes a wonderfully cheeky comment about his own future and the nature of his gospel.

What about you and me?  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” has some resonance for us too, just like the homesick Etonian and the line “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”  We repeat “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, whether quietly at a midweek service in the chapel, or to music at this choral mass on Sunday morning.  It comes immediately following the Sanctus, when we repeat Isaiah’s great vision of the Lord enthroned in glory with the three-times acclamation “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.”

When we sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” in church we are doing two things: first, we recall the act which Jesus accomplished on our behalf upon the cross and give thanks for the salvation it works for us; and second, we also turn our attention towards the coming Eucharistic Prayer, and recognize Jesus’ presence among us under the sacramental signs of bread and wine.  In effect, we are saying,  “Thank you for what you did for us on the cross; and thank you for the nourishment we are about to receive, the fruit of that same redemption.”  Singing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” locates us as recipients of God’s grace, and throws us on the Name of Jesus as the one through whom we receive it.

But this isn’t all.  There is more wordplay to offer.  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  It is a witty remark by Jesus which reflects on prophetic tradition and predicts his own triumphal entry and crucifixion.  It is pithy line by which you and I remember his sacrifice and prepare to receive the ongoing nourishment of his body and blood.  But it’s not just a way of reflecting on the past and preparing for the present.  It is also an anticipation of the future.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  You and I, with all the baptized, have put on Christ as a garment by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Day by day, in Lent especially by our individual disciplines, we are being conformed to his image and growing into the fullness of his stature.  When God the Father looks at each of us on Judgement Day, He will see the likeness of his Son and the virtue of His sacrifice, not our own meager efforts.  On that day, as we enter into the joy of our Master, the whole chorus of angels will sing of each one of us, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord,” and all heaven will laugh at how well the wordplay fits for each of the redeemed.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  What am I trying to say with this whole wandering series of reflections on wordplay?  Only a very simple point, which some of you have been hearing me make all week long.  That is, that the Christian religion is not a sad or a depressing thing.  Sure we discipline our souls and bodies, especially in Lent, and of course we mourn our sins.  But the whole brilliant wonderful reason for doing all this is that, thanks to God, our sins do not have the last word, they cannot speak the last judgment against us.  The power of sin and death have been defeated by him who faced them on our behalf.  And all that’s left, he deepest truth about heaven and earth and each one of us, far deeper than our sin and failings, is the mirth, the good cheer, the laughter of God.

There’s a wonderful line in the classic film, “Becket.”  Richard Burton, playing Thomas Becket, the recently appointed new Archbishop of Canterbury (who did not go to Eton College, by the way) has just given away all his former possessions to the poor.  The Bishop of London, his more worldly friend, is scandalized by his profligacy, thinking it merely a clever political ploy to win favor with the crowds.  But Becket reassures him by laughing and saying he never felt better.  He says, “I’m simply enjoying all of this.  I’m beginning to believe he’s not a sad God after all.”

Friends, we do not serve a sad God, but one who delights in laughter and good cheer, whose abiding mirth is a far firmer foundation than anything sin and death can throw at us.  This Lent, let us rejoice to lay aside the sin that clings so close, to walk with Jesus on the way of the cross, to see all of heaven opening before us, and to say with prophets, saints, Angels, and all the redeemed, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

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

Oh no, Father, I give thanks to God…!

Collect: Almighty God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and in our time grant us thy peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen:

This is a true story:

Once there was a very old monastery on top of a very tall mountain. It was so near the peak that some parts of the monastery had to be connected to each other by means of ancient, rickety, rope plank bridges over chasms dropping far below. The community had grown old, and they had also grown just a little bit too comfortable. One day their abbot died, and the head of their order sent a much younger replacement, a new abbot full of reforming zeal.

The young abbot worked hard to get everyone in shape, and he worked especially hard on one particular brother, who had, over the years, grown several cassock sizes larger than he had been before. This brother worked very hard, and enjoyed some success, but never enough to satisfy his new abbot.

One day, he was walking from the cloister to the chapel over one of their rope bridges, when suddenly the wood underneath his feet buckled and broke, and he fell through — only stopping from certain death by getting stuck around his middle. The monk cried out for help, and his brothers with their abbot all rushed to his aid.

When they had pulled him out of the hole and gotten to safety, the abbot said, predictably, “You see, brother! You could have lost your life, you’ve just got to get in better shape!”

The monk replied, “Oh no, Father, I give thanks to God I’m this big! Because if I were skinny like you, I’d have fallen straight through that hole!”

Everyone immediately fell to pieces laughing, and they were all much gentler with their brother from then on, the Abbot chief among them.

This is a true story, about one of the communities on Mt. Athos in Greece. I was totally charmed when I heard it, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to tell it ever since. But it’s not just a charming story: friends, I submit to you that this brother’s response is the entire fulfillment of the Law, and the heart of the Gospel. This is not some sort of fuzzy, “I’m okay, you’re okay” nonsense; gluttony is a sin after all, and this brother probably could have stood to lose a few more pounds. Rather it is about the entire orientation of our lives as the giving of thanks to God the Father, including our flaws, imperfections, and yes even our besetting sins.

In today’s Gospel, the people of Nazareth are about to toss Jesus over a cliff because they are offended at his teaching. First of all, they can’t figure out the source of his inspiration: “Where did this man get all this? Isn’t he Joseph’s son?” And second of all, what he is telling them about the prophets’ mission beyond Israel goes against the prevailing conventional wisdom of their day. They were expecting a wonder worker, since they’d heard the reports from his healings in Capernaum. They were prepared for that kind of dog and pony show. But they were not prepared to hear someone – a local, even – tell them they were all wrong, and that he would be the one to set them straight.

This scene in Nazareth, from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel is a microcosm and a foreshadowing of the rest of the Gospel, particularly as Jesus falls afoul of the Pharisees, and goes to be crucified. But if we leave it here, Jesus can look to us only like the zealous, reforming abbot, demanding more than his people are able or willing to bear. And we can see ourselves as this struggling brother, aware of his need but without much direct help except in moments of acute crisis.

In reality, you and I might very well be this poor monk, struggling with whatever it is we wish to leave behind. But Jesus is not just another reforming abbot. When the Son of God became human, he assumed all of human nature into himself, including its weaknesses and imperfections. As he went to the cross he bore the sins of the whole world. And as he died there, He completed an entire life which had consisted chiefly in giving thanks to his Heavenly Father: in his own private prayer, in his preaching, in raising Lazarus from the dead, the night before at supper and again in the garden; and then even on the cross itself he finally gave his life as a final thank-offering back to the Father. He bore an enormous burden, and yet he always gave thanks.

What about you and me? It’s awfully hard to give thanks in the midst of our various challenges. Thanking God is often the last thing that comes to mind in a particular crisis, and when it does, we often give thanks for whatever good things we can find, not for the trials themselves which we face. And yet one of the great Christian paradoxes suggests we might benefit from doing just that: “O Felix Culpa,” O Happy Fault — the Church has learned to give thanks even for the sin of Adam, because by it God has given us such a savior as to save us all from sin and death forever.

Forever. However dimly we can see ourselves now, however imperfectly we understand God’s work in our lives, however incomplete the work of grace remains in us, God in Christ has knit himself to us, and his Spirit is our life. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently remarked in an interview, “There is no competition for space between God and his creatures, no either/or. And the way for you and I to be godly is not to grasp at the perfection of Divinity but to rest in the humility of being creatures.” Jesus has shown us how, and by our baptism his righteousness becomes our own. The paradox continues: the Happy Fault leads to the Godly Creature.

When we rest in the humility of being creatures, giving thanks to God for every part of our lives, we can easily look like fools. Humility doesn’t pay out in this world, and neither does gratitude. Giving thanks and living humbly is not a recipe for fame and fortune. But it is a recipe for building relationships that encourage and sustain life. It is a recipe for living into what it means to be a human creature. And it is a recipe for catching glimpses, through the glass of our mortality, into the distant realms of God’s heavenly kingdom. We do not yet see clearly how it shall be when we get there. But we know that when it comes, we will be drawn into the perfection of His love who opened its gates once for all upon the cross.

Meanwhile, with those monks on Mount Athos, let us laugh and be gentle with one another, giving thanks to God in all things.

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